Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

What is social value?

There is no single authoritative definition of ‘social value’. Nevertheless, several leading organisations in this field do provide similar explanations of it. These explanations are almost always within the context of measuring social value.

(New Economics Foundation, 2016)

The debate around value, its definition and its measurement will never be one on which consensus can easily be reached (if ever), but one which will require on-going negotiations of values, pressures, interests and power.

(Belfiore 2015, 107)

One of the earliest uses of the term ‘social value’ on record dates from 1872, advocating ‘the Scientific and Social Value of the British Medical Association’ [1]. What is particularly interesting in our ongoing discussions in the book is that the term emerged as a compulsion to assert the importance of an organisation that is both an intellectual and a practical endeavour to improve human well-being. Welfare economics— that is how the government can improve social welfare or well-being, is referred to in the UK Government’s guidance on the appraisal and evaluation of policies, projects and programmes (the Green Book) as social value.

While the term ‘social value’ is widespread, there is little discussion of what it means in practice—and, again, when there is, there is much disagreement [2]. More recently, the idea of social value has been used to describe the distinctive contributions of commercial companies and third sector organisations, such as charities or community groups, or a domain of society. Social values and value are also expressed via Corporate Social Responsibility, where, as Bill Gates said in the World Economic Forum, ‘more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities’ [3]. Such ‘good work’ is often incentivised by governments via tax breaks [4]. Thus, the value to these companies of ‘good work’ exceeds the social value, instead being very much about private and corporate value which is, of course, ultimately about wealth generation for those already most wealthy.

In social policy terms, examples could include the social value of housing [5] or the arts. The latter is touched on in Chap. 6 when we reflect on cultural policy as social policy. In the UK, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 [6] builds on some of the principles of NPM described in the last section. It legally requires public bodies to consider how the services they commission and procure might improve economic, social and environmental well-being.

The idea of the Social Value Act is that calculating the potential social value created by public and voluntary services helps to ensure value for money. This also acts as an impetus to create additional value. In other words, the aim is for the impact of any public service to exceed the activity or programme being delivered. An example of this can be found in the domain of social housing. The argument for this is that in building new housing that is better quality than that which preceded it, it is not only housing which is improved, but the quality of life of those who live in these houses. It is also argued that this ‘regeneration’ will improve the quality of life of those people who live near this housing, as it will develop the area in various ways.[7] Your value-added could be the addition of a public park (where before it was brown land or wasteland, for instance, and thus unusable) and perhaps commission some form of public art with the development.

The Minister for Civil Society announced a review of the act (February 2017), emphasising that a commitment to social value ensures that public sector bodies are able to maximise the benefits of ‘tax-payers’ money’. This was after the collapse of Carillion, a private company, that specialised in public sector contracts across defence, transport, education and health. Contemporary critics said that ‘the preoccupation with costs had hit the quality of public services because the outsourcing companies were sent a clear signal that cost, rather than quality, was the government’s consistent priority’ [8]. The changes were intended to help restore public trust and confidence in outsourcing, by renewing focus on wider social values and increasing transparency [8]. In other words, NPM and auditing had resulted in large private companies that not only delivered poor public services, but which went bust because ‘efficient’ meant cheap, thus costing more than was saved.

There is increasing evidence that the preoccupation with social value results in promises that are not kept. One example is with the promises of affordable housing in regeneration projects. These emerge from a commitment to contribute to social justice and well-being by improving infrastructure and retaining aspects of welfare redistribution. In other words, rather than just building more luxury flats for more ‘lucky’ and privileged people to move into, and the ‘value’ of the project going to the developers through economic rewards, the rationale is that affordable housing enables key workers to live in the centre of cities with housing issues, such as Manchester and London. As part of audit culture, councils have targets to address the housing shortage in such cities, but the economic value of the homes built are at odds with, and arguably get in the way of, the social value of new houses for people who need them. This state of affairs can be dangerous and at its very worst, cost the lives of many, as in the Grenfell tragedy, 4 June 2017.[9]

Therefore, when we talk of social value, well-being metrics and efficiency, it is vital to ask: whose value is added when we mean ‘social’ value? We might also ask, who is the social of social policy? Who does it benefit?


  1. Shettle 1872[]
  2. Mulgan 2010; Barman 2016[]
  3. Gates 2008[]
  4. McGoey 2019[]
  5. HACT 2020; IPPR 2019[]
  6. UK Parliament 2012[]
  7. ‘Regeneration’ may seem a good well-being solution. However, resulting ‘gentrification’ means that poorer and more vulnerable residents are pushed off social housing estates, and priced out of their local communities. A high-profle example of this is London’s Heygate estate which was demolished and replaced by luxury fats, rather than replacement social housing. As the rental value of the area increased through gentrification, the rental values of surrounding areas are further inflated. Therefore, the displaced residents have to move far from the community in which they had been living and the housing and social conditions to which they move are sometimes worse; hence their life chances and well-being are diminished, not enhanced.[]
  8. Reuters 2018[][]
  9. Notably, the dangerous cladding which accelerated the fire remains on many buildings some years later (Kennedy 2019).[]