by Keith Fletcher

A version of this article  appeared in "Community Care" magazine 24-30 June 1999. It is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.

Is there are essential ingredient which labels certain reviews or projects “best value”? The existence of “Best Value Pilot Projects” suggests that there is. But the idea doesn’t stand up to examination and the search for a holy grail obscures the real issues.

Some of the participants in seminars on best value I have been running recently have come in search of the  “essence of best value”. What is the added secret ingredient which turns an ordinary service into a “best value” service? Committed though I am to consumer satisfaction this is one demand I haven’t been able to meet. “Best value” is a new sound bite, not a new idea. In essence it is what Tom Peters (1) calls “in search of excellence”; others have coined their own phrases, usually as book titles. The rest of us have just called it rather mundanely “good practice”.

One of the virtues of the phrase “best value” and its accompanying literature is that it does not produce the distortions of its predecessors “value for money” and “compulsory competitive tendering” by focusing on one aspect of good practice at the expense of the others. It encompasses good professional practice, good management practice, sound financial management, good customer relations and transparent public accountability within a single agenda. But the fact that it does imply review of all those aspects of services makes it difficult to encapsulate. No wonder several people have said to me, “I haven’t got my head round the idea of ‘best value’ yet.” It’s not that they don’t understand the concepts; they are looking for something new and it isn’t there!

There is a danger that such complexity will produce paralysis: if you are pulled equally from many directions you don’t move at all. It is essential to develop a firm conceptual foundation. In that spirit I offer you the following best value mission statement. “To deliver services of the highest quality, at optimum scale and at the lowest cost and, in doing so, to satisfy the demands of consumers, the standards imposed by regulators and under full public scrutiny”.

That is hardly an “essence” is it? And you may have spotted several real dilemmas there. But if you are reviewing part of your operation and seeking to change at least one of those parameters while keeping an eye on the effect the change is having on the others you are acting within the letter and spirit of best value.

The present danger is not that people will fail to grasp the essence, whatever it is, but that some aspects of this complex agenda will begin to dominate at the expense of others. Many social services people I have spoken to about this fear that quality will always suffer at the expense of cost. But for me the greater issue is the way quality itself comes to be defined. The Government has made it clear that it will impose more and more rigorous “performance standards” on every aspect of service. It has made it equally clear that it expects services to become more attuned to consumer demand. These two tests will come into conflict from time to time. If you allow people to contribute to a debate you must not be surprised if they don’t always agree with you. That may be one “essence of best value” the Government has yet to come fully to grips with.

1 Tom Peters Passion for Excellence (Fontana 1986)

Keith Fletcher is a social care consultant and author of Best Value Social Services (SSSP Publications).

Created 12 July 1999