The search for Something Good: Social Value and Unions


#CriticalMass#15 (http://www.good-dealsuk.com/) concludes today. There are around 400 attending, all preoccupied with social value, investment and innovation. A lot of people, and a lot of energy, ideas.  A lead sponsor is Social Value International (formerly The SROI Network ), whose mission is to prioritise social and environmental aspects in business.

I’ll be speaking there later so I’m leafing through the attendance list.  I always like to know who is in the audience.  My curiosity is certainly justified: Law firms and academics, charities from Barnardos to RNLI,  representatives of  governments and agencies from  three continents.  A bellowing from the British Council and another cadge from the Cabinet Office. Social start-ups and Ben and Jerry’s. A sprinkling of banks and financial institutions – and lots of organisations with “Good” in their title.

It’s clear that taken together this group represents a comprehensive, influential intentional cross-section on “Social Value” theory and practice. And it’s also clear that  these are people  who  are generally on the right side of the debate  about  socially responsive,  useful  business  activity, either as practitioners or advocates. At the very least they are up for the discussion.


But as I  scroll down  the list (http://bit.ly/1W0NeLU) , I have a sense of growing isolation – and by the time I finish,  I am sure.  Where are the contributions of employees, and the collective voice of employees in this landscape?  It is implicit certainly.  Because you really can’t have true social value, investment and innovation that doesn’t recognise employees as key stakeholders – both in process and output.

But as the lone representative of the trade union movement at this event, I can say it is both strange and worrying.  A priority for the trade union movement is to challenge a narrative that too often equates organised labour with low productivity.  We know that the opposite is usually true.  We point to well established and reliable industrial relations that achieve great change and dynamic innovation. (see http://leftfootforward.org/2015/07/trade-unions-are-central-to-improving-productivity/)  Should we see the interest groups and organisations who are signed up to Critical Mass as  being  “on message” and kindred spirits in  meeting the challenge  of productivity and sustainability  in our economy?.


As the Social Value website makes clear, part of the task is to “make visible what is often invisible”. Perhaps  the distinctive value  that  employee involvement  and respect adds  is not so much  invisible  as  over-looked or simply under-valued.  And while we can – with justification – criticise government for not encouraging and facilitating meaningful employee engagement in the quest for improved productivity,   we too need to be alive to the potential of events such as this one to build alliances and make the case for change.

Because what is invisible or overlooked matters.  It’s not really a pure “social value” project, but a great example surfaced last week when  the Stirling  architecture prize  for  the best new building  went to  Burntwood school in south west London.  The panel celebrated this success not just in architectural but educational terms.  “Burntwood sets a standard in school design that every child in Britain deserves.” they said.   If the cause is so deserving, why is this being over-looked? If the value-add is self-evident, why is so little weight attached to it?

Well, as one of the architects, Paul Monaghan, added “This school is not an expensive building but that said it could no longer be built under the current school building programme – a real pity given the current state of the school estate.” (http://www.bdonline.co.uk/paul-monaghan-on-stirling-win-the-stars-aligned/5078193.article)  Is it inaccurate to say that equates to invisibility?

This invisibility costs far more than we can imagine. It makes no sense and is the product of a form of false accounting. Thank you Social Value for the invite to your event.  I think this could be the start of something good.

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