“Dark Value” in Public Services?

We are used to the idea of “dark matter” as the name of the precisely quantified but undetectable proportion of the universe that has to be there for current physics theories to make sense.  By analogy* Geoff McCracken writes in a book of the same name about “Dark Value” – the hidden value –  that is created by various digital offerings.  He gives examples of current digital developments and shows that extra value is generated which was unintentional, but which often leads to success or failure.  And I think it will be interesting to apply this concept to public services and see what happens…

A key aspect of Dark Value is that it wasn’t what was in the business plan – the original value proposition.  Airbnb as a cheaper place to stay, Uber as a cheaper more convenient taxi ride – McCracken argues that some of the more enduring value – the Dark Value – comes from an opportunity through Airbnb to examine and engage with a place more closely than can happen from a hermetically sealed identikit hotel room; that the certainty of the journey and the (in New York at least) need not to fight with your fellow human beings for a cab – that these things offer additional value that even Airbnb and Uber have not yet learned to price in.  Netflix, by giving people more control over their viewing, drives up better quality programming, gives people more cultural reference points to bond around (see this as a digressory example), and helps people to test out friends and even mates by reference to those points.  In the “Big Iron” computer industry there was a swing away from buying IBM as lower-cost commoditised competitors displaced them, only for many of them to swing back again and pay premium prices.  Delighted but perplexed, IBM called in McCracken to find out why this was and he discovered that there was Dark Value in the conversations that people would have with IBM’s expert (expensive) sales and technical people – it was a way of keeping in touch with the industry, technical developments, the bigger picture, that they didn’t know they missed until they had it no longer – and which IBM didn’t consciously realise it was offering as value in the first place.

Understanding how and why people get additional value out of these different models is seen as great work for anthropologists, says McCracken (an anthropologist) and goes on to describe a process that would be very familiar to those who know how the good folk at Participle did some of the early ethnographic work that led to the Troubled Families programme, or that others might recognise as really good user-centred design.

And that brings me on to the question I want to think about – is the concept of Dark Value useful in Public Services?  We’ve had the concept of social value around for a long time in theory, if not always in practice, recognising that e.g. procurement decisions need to take account of more than just monetary value – the impact on the local society and local economy is allowed (indeed now required) to be important too.

Dark Value may be a useful way of describing some intangible sorts of value that don’t easily sit even within a social value framework.  We all intuit that the 15 minute visits by home care workers are functionally “on spec” but miss so much in terms of human interaction (with potentially adverse impacts for the individual and prosaically for public finances too, as they need earlier admission to more expensive levels of care).  I wonder whether there is “dark value” when people interact across public services, the value coming from an unstated belief in a shared value system, that is perceived as missing (sometimes unjustifiably) from interactions with private sector suppliers?

Part of what the concept of “dark value” allows you to do is to recognise that it is real value.  It may be that the post-hoc agonising over whether GovCamps are useful (which is as much a part of the tradition as the recitation of the rule of two feet) could be simplified if we recognise that there is “dark value” from fellowship and energy exchange that doesn’t need quantification.

The McCracken book is written from a private sector perspective – how can we understand dark value better in order to produce more if it and find ways of charging people for it.  Applying this to public services would suggest that we need better to understand and acknowledge – and then promote – the role of intangibles, in order that people appreciate some of the value that they get from public services, and so that public services can adapt accordingly.  If it turns out that a significant part of the “dark value” in libraries is that it’s an opportunity for parents with young children to get out of the house for a free activity – if that is how they are used in practice rather than according to their functional specification – then that will help us understand why “but we could give books away for less than the cost of the library service” is not a valid response.  If the “dark value” in schools is that they create strong self-supporting communities of parents in their locality, then that might affect how we wish to think about governance of those schools.  Is there “dark value” in the shared activity of everyone in the street putting out their bins on the same day – a sense of collective belonging, if there is, how could we tap into that, and help it grow?  (An exercise for the reader!).

It may be hard to acknowledge Dark Value politically.  Some of the aspects of dark value will be a bit touchy-feely and will be experienced by different people to different extents.  It is easier to say that “schools shouldn’t have to worry about community value, they are there to educate children” than to make a more complex argument about intangible benefits if there is a greater sense of community engagement with and around the school.  In public procurement it seems likely that as we strive to quantify the more obvious aspects of social value that there will be ever-deeper tranches of dark value systematically to overlook!  Will people be prepared to pay for ‘dark value” – will it be easier to get elected by ignoring it and focusing on functional outputs?  An acknowledgment and appreciation of Dark Value needs good story-telling skills – that doesn’t come easily to everyone, “cut the crap and keep it simple” is always a very powerful counter-narrative.

So even after all of this I’m not sure whether “Dark value” is a particularly useful concept for public services – I think public-sector types are ahead of the game here.  However it may be a useful label from time to time; it’s a good “stretch” definition of Social Value (I may pitch a session about it at Localgovcamp and see what we find); and as ever, if we can point to it as a leading-edge private sector concept there are some people who will, at last, take it a bit more seriously!


* It’s actually a really bad science analogy because in direct contrast to Dark Matter, Dark Value (a) is detectable; (b) is unquantifiable; (c) is not required in order to make sense of current theories – in fact it challenges them!  However apart from being completely different in every key way to Dark Matter, it sounds cool, seems vaguely evocative of the concept, and gets peoples’ attention which is the usual reason why people use science language in marketing.