Monday, May 10, 2021

laser discs, pagers, and social accounting

History is littered with examples of technologies and systems that were of higher standards and quality, but which were supplanted by inferior products and offers.

And that's the frame I want you to have in mind in this piece on 'social accounting' - a practice that dates back centuries, and in recent years, has seen substantive growth in interest in it through the adoption of Social Accounting, SROI, and such like which businesses and social enterprises have developed amongst themselves.

In large part, this has been driven by government interest in how public services can provide more 'bang for its buck' - starting in 2001 as a policy aspiration, this led to the introduction of legislation to start to mandate how the delivery of government contracts should now include going 'above and beyond' the core deliverables to generate wider benefits to communities and society at large. 

This drive by government is in turn largely responsible for the emergence of 'TOMs' - a relative newcomer to this arena of reporting social impact and value (it wasn't until 2017 that it's first framework was released). And whilst many who've been working in the impact sector for some time aren't fully convinced by it, it's quickly gaining traction as the de facto/go to model for local authorities and other public sector bodies to design and understand how social value will be being created and should be recorded and evidenced in the services they commission and contract.

And that creates a tension in how our services and activities are designed and managed - should the impacts that they can create be constrained to the narrow focus that TOMs has pre-defined (and in doing so, ignoring the wider value we create through how we work); and also only consider our impact through the lens of what it can be financially valued at? (which may make reporting simpler, but misses the point that some things are valuable but can't be reduced to a £). 

But it's not just TOMs - the housing sector created the 'HACT' framework in 2012 to identify and monetise services relating to where and how we live, and the construction industry is also piloting a new national value standard.

Such developments not only add to the confusion over how we should best approach thinking about, and understanding, the ways that our activities and services create benefit in the wider world and for the people and communities whose lives we touch. This is further complicated in that the resources associated with each of these new standards can make it hard to be able to justify adopting more than one of them.

So it seems we have a choice - do we stick with models of social accounting that many feel are of a higher rigour and relevance, and go the way of the laser discs and pagers; or do we accept that the world is shifting around us in ways we can't control, and pragmatically change our thinking and practices so we remain 'in the game' along with everyone else?

It feels like we're approaching another 'betamax vs vhs' showdown, and maybe this is one time that although we feel we're working to higher standards, we have to accept that to remain able to engage with commissioners, funders, and others, we have to shift how we think about how we report our impact to a 'lower standard', in order that we're not 'left out in the cold'... 

1 comment:

  1. A simple rule - don't follow the money, follow the power. Effective social accounting is a system that reinforces accountability to stakeholders and society.