Evaluating Best Value

By Keith Fletcher. (A version of this article first appeared in “Community Care” on 24 September 1998 and is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.)

Just another name for services on the cheap, or something more positive? Keith Fletcher explores the implications of “Best Value” for social services.

The keywords in the Government “Best Value” and “Democratic Renewal” papers are “efficiency”, “quality”, “participation” and “accountability”. In the past “value for money” may have been synonymous with “the cheapest you can get away with”, but best value is much more than that.

Local government should improve its cost and efficiency management. At the same time it should evaluate quality as perceived by the consumer. Can more be provided within the same budget or the same for less? Do the services satisfy the needs of its clients as they see them? Finally the services must become more democratically accountable. Is this the kind of service the community as a while wants its social services to provide?

None of these ideas is new in itself. But linking them together as part of a whole policy initiative is new, and exciting. It’s not going to be easy: Government guidance is much stronger on “what” than “how”.. The complex and inter-active nature of the public services make them difficult to evaluate. Professionals may know for example that the establishment of a family centre will provide great benefits for children and families. But most of them cannot be given a cash value; in spite of frequent, and spurious, attempts to do so.

In the end these are political decisions. “Do you want a school, a hospital, a day centre? This is what it will cost. But you must decide if the benefits outweigh other things. There are no tidy equations to give you cash/benefit comparisons.”.

One of the challenges for professionals is to find more precise language to explain benefit to politicians and the public. We need something more tangible than, “it will greatly benefit the community” and something more real than, “it will produce £5 million benefit in improved quality of life.”

Those problems are equally true of education, health, and many other public services; but the social services have some unique challenges.

Taken together these present a public accountability challenge of substantial proportions, even by normal local government standards. If it sounds like a mountain to climb it is also a terrific opportunity to gain access to the whole community as never before. Social services should be more visible and understood. “How much do you value the welfare of our frail old people? How important is it to you that our more vulnerable children have as decent a start in life as we can give them? You must decide how much these things are worth.” We have a massive education programme on our hands!

But we have no real choice. Whatever else people say about this government no-one suggests that it is laissez faire! Any authority or service which says, “We’re not going to bother with that.” had better think again. There are good, positive reasons for picking up the challenge; there are some excellent negative reasons too!

A handbook entitled “Best Value Social Services” by Keith Fletcher is due for publication in late November.

9 November 1998