Optimising social value in projects

Combining data and engagement strategies
Authors: Simon Babes, Hugh Utting, Melissa Ross
AdobeStock_180961801_People crowd bird-eye view

At a glance

Place-based investment has always been a collaborative exercise requiring many stakeholders to work together to deliver the desired outcomes. While it is relatively straightforward to measure the financial performance of these projects, the wider community outcomes are harder to track.  
Place-based investment has always been a collaborative exercise requiring many stakeholders to work together to deliver the desired outcomes. While it is relatively straightforward to measure the financial performance of these projects, the wider community outcomes are harder to track.

Introducing social value

Increasingly, as part of a move away from considering only the financial aspects of a proposal, governments have begun to mandate that the private sector delivers “social value” as part of procurement processes. In the UK, the passage of the Social Value Act in 2013 gave government agencies a mechanism to mandate the delivery of social and environmental benefits in addition to the economic value of a project. 

The enabling works for High Speed 2, a new rail line connecting London with Birmingham, is a good example of social value creation. As the line leaves the UK capital, heading towards the Chilterns, it traverses some of the most disadvantaged communities northwest of London. To deliver social value, STEM outreach and work placements were proposed for schools and local clubs. The aim was to get young people, who are still making decisions about career choices, excited about the opportunities of working in the rail industry, leading to a wider social impact of job creation.

Using data to measure social value

There is a lot of work being done to develop social value frameworks and assessment tools. One example is GHD’s Loveable framework, which is a place-making approach that is guided by 18 indicators and four dimensions underpinning ‘loveability’ as informed by academic literature. Under this framework, ‘loveability’ is planned and delivered through ‘soft’ infrastructure to complement ‘hard’ infrastructure, creating an affinity to place. 

However, the challenge with any sort of framework is to quantify different activities and impacts on a consistent basis so that they can be compared, assessed and understood. One way of doing so is to look for a change in behaviour. 

Two data sets – movement data and spending data - can help identify and measure behavioural shifts.  Movement data, obtained from mobile networks, and spend data, gathered from card issuers or point of sale providers, can provide an almost immediate and highly detailed understanding of the impact of social value initiatives. Of course, this data is anonymised and aggregated to protect the privacy of individuals and businesses. 

For example, GHD’s Movement Strategies team used this data to analyse the effects of the temporary closure of a live music venue, the O2 Academy in Brixton, England. The venue was closed following a crowd safety incident in December 2022, and mobile network data and spend data was used to measure the reduction in footfall and the impact on the local economy, helping all stakeholders understand the wider ramifications of closure. 

Involving the community in decision-making

No matter how sophisticated, data analysis cannot tell the full story. You have got to go and talk to people on the ground, hear what they think and understand how they feel.  

At GHD, we use the International Association of Public Participation, also known as IAP2, as our main methodology for how we research and evaluate, inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. 

The most important thing to do when starting a stakeholder engagement process is firstly formulating a really tight terms of reference, designing with a mission, knowing exactly what you want to find and defining what the problem at hand is. What is the information you need to find or test? Who are you not hearing from? And secondly, setting really clear expectations for your client, your community and your project team.  

GHD’s bespoke ‘Loveable Language Model’ produces query-able insights based on what a specific community loves in accordance with our Loveable principles, an approach that puts people outcomes first. Targeting community aspiration and desire, we can use natural language processing to understand and analyse free-form text from the Loveable engagement process, producing insights in dashboards and visualisations that better inform and support decision-making. 

A great example is Pyrmont in Sydney, a linear connector project that seeks to improve the experience of transit while creating destinations and urban moments of interest along the way. The outcome is a powerful demonstration of elevated decision-making where, for example, indigenous and cultural outcomes are prioritised. 

 Most useful at the beginning of a project, adopting this approach can help identify what really matters to the community. What do they love? What do they wish? What do they wonder? By embedding community values into the traditional multi-criteria analytical approach, we can inspire a new phase in the evolution of community building. 

There is a big opportunity for government clients, in particular, to ensure that targeted social value opportunities are identified during procurement, and that data and community engagement is used to inform the social value proposition during the life cycle of the project. For the private sector, there are opportunities to offer new services and to deliver a real legacy in the communities impacted by the projects being delivered.  
AdobeStock_180961801_People crowd bird-eye view

Creating social value

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