Professor Mark Moore of Harvard University developed the concept of 'public value creation 'more than 20 years ago, and there is a growing academic and professional literature on how to measure the total value generated by public bodies and civil society organisations. I was commissioned to write a newly published report, Making an Impact: The Public Value of Citizens Information Services in Ireland, which makes a contribution to this school of thought.
The basic argument is simple: public value is what people value. Sometimes a monetary value or equivalent can be given for this value, and the total of this can be added to the market value to give a total economic value expressed in euro. However, there can be additional social value created that cannot easily be expressed in monetary terms, but which nonetheless is recognised as providing real value. For example, the value of keeping a family together or helping someone overcome addiction. Aspects of these things can be monetised but to see the full value requires one to include a list of non-monetary outcomes alongside the economic side. This creates a more sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, based on outcomes as well as money. Ultimately, political decision making is needed as part of the process of comparing different options. There is no simple 'technocratic' answer based on maximising the monetary benefit.
In the case of the Citizens Information Services, they save the state money through reduced need for appeals processes or bespoke call centres to explain new policies. But they also generate a monetary value for people through helping them access welfare payments or services to which they are entitled. In the UK, Citizens Advice England and Wales have developed a sophisticated analysis of their social value, using a database agreed with Treasury that gives a monetary value for over 600 social outcomes, such as helping someone into employment or reducing someone's stress. It wasn't possible to do anything as complex as that in Ireland due to the lack of data and the absence of a similar agreed database. But the core idea remains the same. My one critique of the England and Wales approach is that it risks being too focused on monetary outcomes and squeezing out the important social outcomes that cannot be monetised.
The core idea of recognising the societal value of civil society organisations is also a theme in a report I wrote for The Wheel that was launched in 2016: Let's Commission for Communities. There is a risk that the current policy of moving away from grant funding towards commissioning services will leave out much of the added value that is currently being provided, just because it is not monetised, unless commissioning takes a public value approach.
For example, in the UK, private security firm G4S won a series of contracts to provide youth services. But in February 2016, it announced it was 'to sell its UK children’s services business, including its contracts to run two youth prisons, weeks after damning footage emerged of its staff using excessive force on children,' (Guardian). The public value argument would be that many not-for-private-profit organisations delivering youth services do so because they have a mission to improve the lives of young people and an ethos that permiates all of their work. The G4S scandal is an example of what happens when commissioning is done solely to minimise cost without regard to the quality and ethos of the services to be delivered.
As a more extensive example, a summary of the public value delivered by the Citizens Information Services is as follows:
- The Citizens Information Service enjoys a high level of public confidence and trust (in an era of low trust in public and private organisations)
- Annually, it provides tens of millions of euro value to individuals and families from receiving their entitlements, including welfare payments and public services like housing, health care or education, and including reduction of overpayment demands;
- Significant monetary value to individuals from getting redress from employers or resolution of consumer issues;
- Significant monetary value to individuals and families from getting access to public services they need;
- Millions of euro of savings to the State, from preventing costly processes such as appeals and employment hearings and reducing the need for call centres to accompany policy changes;
- Providing people with the information and advice they need to access their entitlements improves their access to public services, and thereby fosters confidence in the public sector;
- Social policy feedback, and reports at local and national level, have provided an invaluable resource to policymakers to help to improve the implementation of policies;
- Students, people from migrant communities and citizens generally have benefited from the civic education resources produced by Citizens Information;
- The existence of a reliable and constantly updated national website, as well as national and local publications, underpins the self- reliance and empowerment of citizens, who are better informed and equipped as a result;
- Providing targeted support to people in very vulnerable situations and who are suffering disadvantage has both a tangible economic benefit for those individuals and families and also helps to achieve the national goals of social inclusion and equality of opportunity;
- Providing specialised support to people in minority communities or from migrant backgrounds has both a tangible economic benefit for those individuals and families and also helps to achieve their full participation in society and the economy;
- The enchancement of the lives of volunteers and employment support staff has both a tangible benefit for them in terms of training and future employment, but also provides them with a strong sense of personal satisfaction from contributing to the Citizens Information Service’s mission. The contribution of volunteers also represents a significant cash saving to the exchequer through the services they provide for free;
- Further tens of millions of euro value – and incalculable personal value – is gained by individuals from the alleviation of stress and reduction in mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
As part of the project, I wrote a more detailed technical paper, which should be published online soon and which goes through the process of estimating the public value in a lot more detail.
Nat O’Connor is a member of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences (IRiSS) and a Lecturer of Public Policy and Public Management in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University.
Previously Director of TASC, Nat also led the research team in Dublin’s Homeless Agency.
Nat holds a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College Dublin (2008) and an MA in Political Science and Social Policy form the University of Dundee (1998). Nat’s primary research interest is in how research-informed public policy can achieve social justice and human wellbeing. Nat’s work has focused on economic inequality, housing and homelessness, democratic accountability and public policy analysis. His PhD focused on public access to information as part of democratic policy making.