With the Social Value Act coming into force next year, the Guardian's Kate Murray comments that housing associations are fighting to prove their financial worth.
Can you put a value on confidence? Or on the skills to get a job? According to Ashram Housing Association you can – and it's £5.67. That's the figure the association says every £1 it invests in its employment and skills service is worth in terms of helping people into work, increasing tenant well-being and reducing benefit dependency and rent arrears.
Ashram's exhaustive analysis of its work with jobless residents is part of an increasing trend by housing providers to try to get to grips with the social value of the work they do. Chief executive Jas Bains says housing providers have been used to being tracked and measured by their regulators, but have rarely tried to analyse the long-term benefits of their work.
"There's a cultural shift going on," he says. "We have been accustomed to measuring the things we have been told to measure without asking, 'how is this relevant?'. But now as we move from a grant-focused regime to one where we are looking for new investment routes, people are not going to be interested in just the number of outputs, they are going to be interested in our quality of life outcomes."
For housing associations, Bains explains, measuring social value offers "huge opportunities" to extend the work they do. He believes Ashram's analysis of its employment and skills work, using the social return on investment model, could prove his case that associations are equally, if not better, qualified than private providers to run government work programmes.
Under the Public Services (Social Value) Act, which comes into force next year, commissioners will have to at least consider social value when they buy services. Housing providers, both as suppliers and buyers, will find themselves needing to look at the benefits of what they and their commercial partners do.
But measuring social value also has wider implications in these challenging times for social housing. As Matt Leach, chief executive of HACT puts it: "For providers the biggest challenge will be how do they orientate and drive their business forward in line with their social mission and measure that."
HACT has been working on a number of initiatives around social value, including a project with the London School of Economics to measure the value of all of the different aspects of providing a decent home. Leach says analysing the impact of individual community initiatives is less important than looking at the social impact of a business as a whole and how that then influences the investment choices you make.
"If even two or three years ago you were asked, are you any good, you would have an easy answer. You could say: 'Look at the size of my development programme, my 2-star and improving rating from the Audit Commission, my clean bill of health on governance and viability from the TSA'," he says. "Now those easy answers aren't there any more. The question about how good they are pushes housing providers to focus on social impact and more importantly on the notion of defining what they are for and how far they are meeting those objectives."
Kevin Gulliver, director of the Human City Institute thinktank, says housing organisations have been "running to catch up" with the rest of the third sector on measuring social value, but now know they need to demonstrate the financial value of the work they do.
"When housing associations became the major providers of new housing development, the numbers superseded anything else. To some extent they had forgotten the social purpose that created them," he says. "Now they are rediscovering that and saying we do a lot more in the community than we're given credit for."
The HCI is developing its own way of measuring social value, looking at the work of Birmingham-based Trident. Its analysis of Trident's money advice centre is that it has kept up to £400,000 in the community, with some £100,000 circulating in the local economy supporting shops and services.
Other housing providers are taking their own approach. Orbit Housing Group's latest work with the London School of Economics – a first report from which was published last week – has included research by 160 specially-trained resident researchers looking at the impact of its work in three communities.
But with all these different approaches, isn't there a danger of creating too much confusion and new levels of bureaucracy? There could be lessons from Wales, where the Welsh Government is using a "results-based accountability" framework for its spending, and providers are looking to embed measuring social value in all that they do.
Steve Curry, community regeneration manager at Valleys2Coast Housing, explains that his organisation now has a dedicated member of staff tracking the benefits of its work across the business. "It's not about counting activity, it's about collecting information which can evidence impacts and returns but also start to inform investment decisions," he says.
"I've always thought this is good thing – but because of the broader political situation it's now absolutely vital. A lot of people in government might take view the view that people like Serco or G4S can do anything – schools, prisons or social housing – cheaper, and therefore better. We need to be stronger about providing the evidence of our outcomes and added value."