What? Why? Who?

Understanding Public Value: What? Why? Who?

“Just as the goal of private managers is to create (or increase) the value of their company, the primary goal of publicly-funded agencies and organizations is to create public value. Quite apart from the value direct participants gain from an agency’s programs, public value is the value of an agency’s program to those who do not directly benefit, yet still, directly or indirectly fund the agency’s activities.” (Public Value Workshop page, University of Minnesota Extension, Community Economics)

The cost side of most public services is well known, but often many in the public often have questions about the benefits. This service helps citizens and local officials identify the nature of the direct and indirect benefits of public services, giving them information on which services are good investments.

Often the return on investment cannot be adequately measured in dollars and cents. Rather it is seen in the library patrons who become the person they’ve aspired to become, the children who learn to love reading, the patrons who become successes in their endeavors, the strangers who build a sense of community.

What is Public Value?

Every public service has two types of value:

  1. Private Value = the direct benefits that patrons of the service receive from using that service.
  2. Public Value = the indirect benefits that non-users of the service get because of spillovers from the users.

bee on coneflower

Can you give an example of “spillovers”?

One example of spillovers can be found in many of our own backyards. If you grow flowers or vegetables at your home and if one of your neighbors keeps a hive of honeybees, you benefit from spillovers.

What is an example of a Public Value Statement?

A public value statement shows how the changes created by participation by patrons of a public service indirectly benefit non-patrons. Here is an example:

“Children in our library’s preschool programs have greater success in school [private value], reducing remedial costs (and lowering school costs and taxes for everyone) [public value].”

Identifying the Public Value a Unique Public Service

Many local libraries have public services that are either unique to their library or, while common to many libraries are delivered in unique ways. When one of the public value statements listed from the 2014 workshops doesn’t work for your library, you can develop your own by using the following “Public Value Message Graphic”

What is a Public Value Narrative?

Many people are uncomfortable with just using the public value statements above, feeling it seems too much like a sales pitch (which of course it is!). However, they are much more comfortable when the public value statement is proceeded by a real anecdotal story of how a participant has benefited from the program and then follow with the public value message on how non-participants benefit indirectly. The public value narratives includes four parts: 1) a real anecdote on a person who has benefited from your service, 2) a statistic on the size of the program, 3) a quick indication that there is strong research to back up the story (but only if there is, of course) and 4) the public value statement.

Here is a specific example:

Why is identifying the Public Value of a public service important?

cash, adding machine, listPublic budgets are tight. Taxpayers want to know where their tax dollars are used, and if they are being used efficiently. The costs of any public service are known through public records; therefore, it is generally easy for taxpayers to see how much of each tax dollar goes to any given service.

Patrons of each public service often know the value of the service and can give good examples of the benefit. In fact, participants generally perceive their benefits as exceeding their costs or they won’t participate.

However, most taxpayers do not participate in every public service, but they still pay taxes that go toward all public services. Naturally, most taxpayers want their tax dollars to give the most bang for the buck. Taxpayers who do not participate in a given public service often ask:

  • Do I get any value, even indirectly, from the public services I do not use?
  • Is the value I get enough to justify the taxes I am paying?

The odds of taxpayers providing additional support for a public service increases as they understand the public value of the service. In other words, they understand the indirect benefits to the non-users of the service as well as the benefits to the people who do use the service, which we call direct benefits.

Who will benefit from this website?

Librarians and Library Advocates: If librarians and library advocates can explain the public value of the library to public officials and taxpayers, the library is likely to receive greater funding than if they only provide information about the private values.

Second, public libraries provided a model of an iconic public service to help Extension improve resources for educational programs on public value for other public services, including our own Cooperative Extension programs.

Cooperative Extension Program Leaders and Advocates: Every Extension program team can explain how they (directly) benefit the participants in their programs. Resources in this website help Extension staff who often have not been able to explain how their programs benefit taxpayers who are not participants.

Public Officials and Taxpayers: No one likes taxes but most people realize that taxes fund services that cannot be provided through the private market. People like to know that they get a “big bang for their tax buck,” and are funding services with the best rates of return. If the rates of return for a public service does not include the indirect benefits for non-users, the estimate is misleading. Hence, taxpayers and public officials benefit from knowing the public value of public services.

Fair or Biased: The core mission of the Cooperative Extension service is to provide research-based information that is practical, relevant and unbiased. We have worked very hard at doing just this on this community and public policy topic. For a deeper dive into how we tried to be fair and unbiased, visit the Is the Content in This Website Fair or Biased? page.