Creating a Value for Money toolkit for smarter public spending

The Blavatnik School of Government’s GO Lab is working closely with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy (CIPFA) to help public authorities get the best value for money from their projects and programmes.

Faced with public spending cuts and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, local authorities are under pressure to spend wisely. Yet the increasing importance of broader impacts like social value, which currently lack agreed definitions and metrics, make procurement more complex than ever. How can public managers demonstrate they’re getting the best possible value for money?

The Government Outcomes Lab (the GO Lab), a policy-focused research group based in the Blavatnik School of Government, have joined forces with CIPFA, the UK’s leading public finance organisation, to develop a solution – a Value for Money (VfM) toolkit to help practitioners assess and cost their programmes more accurately.

Designing and developing in partnership

As the only professional accounting body specialising in public services, CIPFA was a natural partner for GO Lab’s work helping public managers demonstrate the value of their spending.

Dr Mehdi Shiva of GO Lab explains: “When we learned about the Social Sciences Engagement Fellowship scheme, we realised we had a unique opportunity to not only work with CIPFA, but to jointly design something that we would both own and care about equally.” Funding from the University’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account also contributed to the partnership's development.

CIPFA’s Chief Economist, Jeffrey Matsu, says he was impressed with the team from the start: “Their approach was – ‘we’re looking to learn from you, but we also want to create new knowledge.’ It was refreshing. They’d done the homework and found an ESRC scheme that could make the collaboration work. They’d looked at the practicalities. That was a big motivation for me.”

They worked together to produce a VfM toolkit focused on outcome-based contracts, where services are contracted out and payment is directly linked to the contractor’s success in meeting targets.

CIPFA gave GO Lab access to their memberships and stakeholders to shape the outputs into practical, user-friendly resources that would make sense to public managers.

“They were helping us by making our tone and language more practice-friendly,” says Dr Shiva, “and we were helping them to raise the quality and rigour of the work.”

Keeping the conversation going

One of the key outputs of this project was the creation of a “value in public finance” peer learning group, co-led by both institutions.

These regular, virtual meetings are an open forum for practitioners, policymakers and academics to get together and discuss complex issues related to local authority spending, such as how to make sustainable and equitable procurement decisions, and knowing when to outsource to the private sector and what can be effectively managed in house.

The learning from this group then feeds into CIPFA and Go Lab’s ongoing project work.

“The peer learning group has given us continuity, it is an anchoring point – something that can evolve and last beyond each discrete research project,” says Jeffrey Matsu. “It allows us to cross-fertilise between the channels.”

The partners have also collaborated successfully on cross-institutional support – hiring a Research and Policy Officer, Yuko Ishibashi, who works across both organisations. In an unusual move, though CIPFA secured the majority of funding for the role, the position sits within the Blavatnik School of Government and is co-managed by the team leads. The approach has proved successful, and the position has just been renewed for another year.

“We found a common language”

We have a passion to make a difference on the ground. We found a common language because we shared a purpose – we have the same audience in mind, and we want to serve this audience in the best possible way.

- Dr Mara Airoldi

The collaboration produced more deliverables than anticipated – as well as the peer learning group, toolkit and guide, the team created supporting materials including case studies and video tutorials. The VfM toolkit has also received significant policy and media attention.

But the project’s greatest success is surely the ongoing relationship between CIPFA and GO Lab, which continues to flourish. The team are now working on a new jointly funded project, and continue to seek new opportunities.

Project PI Dr Mara Airoldi says it was important that both sides were open to learning and creating impact: “Jeff is someone who is intellectually curious, and we have a passion to make a difference on the ground. We found a common language because we shared a purpose – we have the same audience in mind, and we want to serve this audience in the best possible way.”

Find out more about the GO Lab/CIPFA peer learning groups.