It’s 2016 – Time to Legislate Canadian Social Value Act: Part 2

As mentioned in the Part 1, governments’ desire to think holistically about “increased community capacity” and “multi-generational benefits” is at odds with ability to define and quantify the business of “social”.

The common way of managing “impossible to quantify” using under- the- carpet strategy is, to say the least, outdated. The good news is that under-the-carpet anticipates that the issues will eventually surface but the bad news is that in lives of people and governments it creates mixed-up priorities: is it money or people; savings or access; optimization or sustainability. The mantra of “what you can’t measure you can’t manage” led to omission of measuring what matters — useful in the past when data was limited. Today, however, in times of data over-supply the strategy should be revised. Poorly measured complexity of the 3rd sector creates job insecurity (see ONN’s blog on decent work).
Documentary El Contrato by Min Sook Lee

Exclusion of social value/social capital enables procurement of unethically outsourced global employment. And increased disposability of foreign migrant workers (e.g. Canadian farm migrant workers) gets justified.

In our case, for example, we struggle to quantify the value we provide which is the right to access to critical information, legal or health, in languages our clients understand. And as we “spend” the public money so we “earn” for the public too by “removing barriers” to income, employment and education. We also know for a fact that the passion, consistency and dedication we have in our work is hard to match. I do know hearts and souls of people I work with. Sometimes when I think about our impact I think about domestic duties and my extremely capable, shrewd, business-minded grandmother who was denied access to literacy but given a family of 9 instead. The work was endless: children to be fed, elderly to be taken care of, house cleaned, clothes mended, garden maintained, three meals cooked from the scratch (and lunch taken to the fields to be delivered by 12 noon sharply), day in, day out. My grandfather did not care to evaluate. It was woman’s work. But he noticed if the services were not delivered on time and on budget.

The 3rd sector feels like woman’s work. The fact is that women employed by NP sector are largely overrepresented.

For example, in the Metro Toronto Area only women make up 47.6% of the overall labour force and 84.4% of the non-profit labour force” (Casualization of Non-Profit Work), an interesting fact that maybe tells the story about why we are evaluated the way we are and why we do the work the way we do. We cannot optimize extra time we spend to listen to our clients to be able to understand the need or free service we squeeze out of our own pocket or frequent subsidies we allocate because our motto is to help no matter what. The damage of unjust, bottom- line pricing and optimization to historical legacy of NPs in Canada is silent but perpetual; it eroded appreciation for the field and work the people do and created exodus of talent due to low pay and diminished opportunities.

Some would say that this sounds like the very fruit of neoliberal thought. But here is a challenge — try to find the word “neoliberalism” in printed papers, or in the spoken forms on any media channels, inclusive of CBC . I learned recently from one of the independent on-line media channels that in media, if not openly censored, the use is highly discouraged (I was monitoring occurrences for a couple of weeks and it turned out to be true). However, as a management practice, neoliberalism is superbly influential. How does it work? Well, the purpose of the practice, outside of all connotation, is to advocate for minimized government and maximized corporate influence in thought and action. The neoliberal interventions are meant to eventually “liberate” economy via implementation of policies that will lead to government deregulation and optimization of government spending. These policies will encourage financial austerity and “help” NPs to behave more like for-profits. If all of the above principles are applied properly the market (inclusive of public procurement and services) will return to its “natural” state, the idealized equilibrium of demand and supply. If it sounds like a nonsense to you as it sounds to me, it probably is.

In my life I tried to stay away from economy. My background is in social sciences: literature, journalism, information and libraries. Yet, this year I found myself compelled to complete the core competencies at the Harvard Business School (HBX). The program, business analytics, finance and economy, was excellent and challenging. A rich, international community was created, many new ideas shared and I also had opportunity to re-examine my love-hate relationship with Economy 101 in a much more structured, evidence-based way.

Weall agree that as much as economy appears solid, especially when displayed by numbers, it is not per se a hard science. To adequately function one needs to swallow tons of assumptions about how humans behave when interacting with markets. The choice of what is material or immaterial starts with an assumption of value. In the current, Economy 101, the value = profit. Naturally, if you are in a for profit business focusing on increasing your money capital, this makes total sense. But if you are in the business of, say, creating social capital, it cannot. So while I was struggling with these concepts sending occasional comments to our instructors, I realized that it really does not matter what we think. All factual evidence led me to a simple conclusion that apples and oranges should not be measured by the same stick. The value of social capital (oranges) created by governments, academia, public and social purpose businesses and value of monetary capital (apples) created by corporate for-profits are simply different types of capital. They are not only created differently, they also grow under different conditions (speed, time, optimization)and they give different results. But this is not all. What I also found, which was a shocking discovery to me, is that neoliberalism, at least according to people at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is considered to have damaging influence on public institution and society at large.

In his excellent summary, You’re witnessing the death of neoliberalism — from within, Chakrabortty reflects on the latest IMF Report that gathered a bunch of chief economists pondering over 30+ years of neoliberal influence. The consensus reached was that the way of looking at public and social services as if they are private corporations led states and governments to transform “their social and political institutions into pale copies of the market” with results that are rather tragic: “neoliberalism hasn’t delivered economic growth — it has only made a few people a lot better off. It caused epic crashes that leave behind human wreckage and cost billions to clean up.” But wait, if the very top 1% of world financial elite admits that something went terribly wrong, perhaps it’s about the time for the rest of us to wake up and collectively reflect on how to change the course as soon as we can.

True, unlike some other countries, Canada could be showing some interest in measuring social capital and social value. Cabinet gender equality? Check. Willingness to make right environmental decisions? Check. Commitment to playing our part on the world scene? Check. Parliamentary yoga? Check that one too. If we could extend this excitement just one inch further we will be able to accommodate a piece of legislation that will not only affirm but also legislate our commitment. What do we need to make this happen?

We need a few elements to be in place first.


(Continues – part 3) (Previous – part 1)

  • Header (Gandhi in Honolulu) courtesy of Brian Glanz
  • IMF Photograph/Cliff Owen/Creative Commons license