May 15, 2015

Beyond ‘social mission’: Why it’s important for community organisations to talk about public value

Language is principally a communication tool, but it’s also a marker of identity and difference. The ways that organisations and industry sectors talk about their objectives, goals and purpose can vary widely. Unique and native languages often frame ways of working, interacting and excluding. Think of the legal community and its adherence to ‘legalese’ – a language that baffles all but lawyers.

It’s no surprise that government and the not-for-profit community sector have distinct and native languages. Although these may vary only slightly, a word or phrase here or there, this still impacts the extent to which organisations and their people understand each other. A failure to understand the language of the other can be a real barrier to forming collaborative relationships and achieving shared outcomes.

One of the clearest examples of this is when governments talk about ‘delivering public value’ and community organisations talk about ‘delivering on social mission’.

What’s that you say?

What do we mean by ‘public value’ and ‘social mission’?

Put simply, public value is about the value that an organisation contributes to society. Professor Mark H Moore points to public value being the equivalent of shareholder value (in the language of the private sector) in a public sector context. Public value organisations such as government departments and agencies exist to create ‘public good’, in a very broad sense of the term. Creating public value includes things like connecting people to jobs, education and recreation, keeping the community safe and protecting the environment for future generations.

Not-for-profit community organisations are generally driven by a well-understood social mission. For these organisations, their mission, such as pursuing a just society or empowering people to break the cycle of disadvantage and improve their lives, is the foundation upon which the organisation is built. Delivering on social mission is a key focus of community organisations’ Boards, and is an important anchor to the activities and services these organisations deliver.

However, while these may look similar on the surface, simply comparing these concepts does little to overcome what might be a fundamental difference of view or expectation. While community organisations feel strongly that their social mission aligns with, and delivers on particular government objectives, increasingly governments expect something more. Incorporating the more nuanced aspects of public value into organisations’ core business, such as defining and measuring outcomes achieved, understanding the impact of services and programs over a range of timeframes and demonstrating return on investment, is now vitally important.

Speaking the language of ‘public value’ matters

In an environment where governments talk about outcomes-based commissioning, markets and system stewardship, dedication to a social mission may no longer hit the mark. Governments have their sights set on new ways of measuring and quantifying success in community services. Recent high profile reviews commenting on the productivity and effectiveness of community services have focused on the need for government to better articulate its expectations of the services it funds and to find/provide evidence of the impact of its investment. Commissioning based on public value and public value outcomes is gaining traction, particularly in community services.

This means community organisations must increasingly describe and demonstrate outcomes for the funding they receive from government. It’s not enough that community services organisations inherently understand the value they deliver to the community, or leverage past experience and longstanding reputation for providing vital community services.

Language is important. Speaking the language of public value, and creating a compelling public value proposition is a strategic shift that many organisations and leaders must tackle, both inside and outside government. Understanding and showing others the positive difference your organisation is making, and what sets your organisation apart from another, is a necessity.

But wait there’s more

Community organisations operate on shifting sands. Reform is a constant part of the landscape and community organisations must adapt, innovate and evolve. Holistic service integration, partnership and the introduction of competition and new service models to enhance choice and control for people who use community services, are at the forefront of this landscape.

However, these reform directions are predicated on the fact that demand for services is increasing at the same time that budget constraints on government have translated into tightened or reduced funding for service delivery.

So while community and voluntary organisations need to be able to clearly articulate their value proposition, their impact, and find time to deliver existing services strongly while also innovating, they need to do this at the same time as being asked to do more with less and facing rising demand.

That’s a lot to juggle at once!

How can community organisations succeed while also staying ahead of the curve?

A starting point

The good news is that it’s not difficult for community organisations to articulate their public value proposition, especially where they already have a clearly articulated social mission.

At Cube, we think the starting point is a conversation – within the organisation, with the Board, with clients and the community. Strategic planning, using simple public value oriented tools like the PACE model can help shape these conversations.

Start by identifying what is most valuable for your organisation, and how your organisation can make the most of the authorising environment, resources and capabilities to achieve it. Two key concepts can help bring clarity to the public value maturity of an organisation: Public value awareness – understanding the difference and outcomes an organisation aspires to achieve for the community and Public value achievement – the extent to which an organisation measures its outcomes and the difference it makes.

In a previous blog, Ben Schramm outlined four profiles of public value organisations: worker bees, dreamers, drifters and entrepreneurs. Which profile is your organisation currently aligned to? Which profile might your organisation aspire to?

The Public Value Compass is another simple, yet strategic way of making sense of the types of public value outcomes community organisations aspire to deliver.

Using these tools can be pivotal in defining an organisation’s public value proposition and articulating public value outcomes.

Do these issues resonate for you or your organisation? We would be happy to discuss public value with you and explain how Cube’s public value tools might be able to help.

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