I spoke recently at the UK Universities Procurement conference and as usual, had some interesting conversations around the margins of my session. In one such discussion, a sustainability person from a major university told me that his organisation was looking to increase the percentage of marks awarded to “social value” in tenders from 20% to 30%. I must admit this surprised me, and I am certainly not in favour of this at the moment. It feels like we are heading for another new category of Bad Buying stories – where firms win tenders based mainly on their social value proposals rather than on their capability and the real “value” of their offering.
I have been consistently in favour of including social value in public procurement. But we haven’t been doing it for long, and I have not seen much analysis of exactly how successful it has been to date. So it seems too soon to be putting quite so much emphasis on that at the expense of cost, wider quality or service issues, supplier innovation and so on. I would personally like to see 10-15% of the marks allocated to social value until we have more evidence.
One key concern is that organisations in my experience sometimes don’t really understand their own evaluation processes. My question to anyone thinking of moving to 30% is this. Given the evaluation methodology you are using, how much more are you prepared to pay for a proposal that scores 100% on social value creation as against one that scores 50%? Because that is what your evaluation scheme actually determines.
Some might say “ah, but social value has a real financial benefit too”. In general, that is simply not true – certainly for the contracting authority itself. Read my article from a year ago here if you want more to support my claim). A quick extract – “In almost all cases, this is not real money. “Wooden dollars” as someone described it to me recently. It does not show up on the buyer’s P&L or balance sheet. You can’t spend these “financial” benefits on more road maintenance, a new operating theatre, or re-opening a drop-in centre for vulnerable people. No cash appears in the CFO’s hands.
The other big problem is that where there are benefits from social value, they often don’t go to the actual buyer. So if a university is accepting something like “employing more apprentices” as a positive social value factor, then how exactly does that benefit the university itself? Maybe it is good for society more generally, although big firms always employ apprentices so whether this is real incremental benefit from this contract is often questionable. We are also building in a barrier for smaller suppliers when we do this.
If we go down the 30% route, I can see some scandals emerging where contracting authorities end up paying way over the odds for goods or services, and their defence is “but the social value was great – look, the supplier painted a scout hut”. Yes, but was that worth the extra million you paid to a supplier who turned out to be not very good at the core work? Look at the Scottish ferries fiasco if you want an example of what can happen when a basically incompetent supplier wins a contract for non-value for money reasons.
I don’t want to become an “anti-social value” campaigner, but I really don’t like the idea of 30% of evaluation marks going on social value until we understand a lot more about best practice and how we can get the most out of this initiative for the taxpayer. And we’re not there yet.
However, there is one more innovative option. You could specify a fixed price and then evaluate on service, social value and other factors. I have heard of this being done and it has some merits. So you might say “we are prepared to pay £500K for this service – now tell me how you will do it and what social value you will provide”. In that case, I’m open to a 30% weighting.