Recent decades have brought periodic waves of interest in finding better ways of mapping and measuring public and social value - outcomes, institutions and services that are valued by the public but not easy to count in the way that the monetary value of cars or computers can be. Governments and parliaments have sometimes tried to encourage this. In the UK for example, the Social Value Act explicitly encouraged broader notions of value, as have recent revisions of the Treasury Green Book used to assess public spending choices.
But these generally remain underdeveloped and lack influence compared to more traditional market valuation methods. Within government there are still far more developed means for measuring investment in physical things - railways, roads, airports - than in intangibles like reducing social isolation, improving health or the arts. This almost certainly continues to skew public spending.
It’s obviously wrong to claim that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. But the lack of well-established metrics for public value in all its forms makes it harder to compare alternatives and continues to bias public spending against prevention rather than cure, against indirect benefits relative to direct ones, and against intangibles relative to physical objects.
This paper sets out alternatives. It brings together views from Nesta on better ways of mapping and measuring public value. It builds on work Nesta has done in many fields - from health and culture to public services - to find more rounded and realistic ways of capturing the many dimensions of value created by public action. It is relevant to our work influencing governments and charities as well as to our own work as a funder, since our status as a charity commits us to creating public benefit.
Our aim in this work is to make value more transparent and more open to interrogation, whether that concerns libraries, bicycle lanes, museums, primary health services or training programmes for the unemployed. We recognise that value may come from government action; it can also be created by others, in civil society and business. And we recognise that value can often be complex, whether in terms of who benefits, or how it relates to values, as well as more technical issues such as what discount rates to apply.
But unless value is attended to explicitly, we risk ending up with unhappy results. This is why we have focused so much on how to both understand as well as create value, through setting up What Works Centres and the Alliance for Useful Evidence; through impact investment funds that use more precise metrics for social impact; through projects in health that recognise what is important to people themselves; through projects to measure the value of culture; and through programmes like ‘Innovate to Save’ in Wales that aims to achieve cashable and other savings from innovations.