Most societies want to support those among them who are in difficult circumstances. We aspire for children in tough situations to be protected, those suffering long term health conditions to have a better quality of life, homeless people to have a place to live, and those out of work to be gainfully employed. However, social issues like these tend to have complex causes which can mean they are multifaceted and entrenched. Solutions are far from simple, and often very costly.
At present, challenges within government structures can make it difficult to pioneer approaches that better tackle these social concerns. Government departments work independently of one another but often with the same individuals or families. Political and budgetary pressures mean that preventative services with long term outlooks are hard to develop. The absence of oversight can allow poor provision to continue without challenge, yet where it is present it can act as a constraint against adapting services to meet needs.
At the GO Lab, we believe that giving public services an outcomes focus might help tackle these challenges. Generally, governments are used to providing services and citizens are used to receiving them: schools, doctors and social workers for example. But, we could switch the focus to the end outcomes we want: improved grades at school, reduced risk of diabetes, or time settled in accommodation.
We want to understand when and how this focus on outcomes can be effective for delivering public services, and whether it can be more effective than other options. We are looking in particular at approaches that encourage collaboration across sectors, like outcome based commissioning, social impact bonds, and place based approaches, and are exploring how well they work in practice.
We are using our knowledge to equip government policy-makers with more and better tools to tackle complex social issues. We seek to answer the practical questions that leaders in public bodies are asking in their efforts to rally resources and design and deliver programmes to achieve the best outcomes possible. We seek to build a stronger ‘civic core’ in governments nationally and locally, so they can nurture and utilise the resources available to respond to the needs of their citizens.
In order to understand the emerging practice better, we advocate for more openness in the field. This will enable us to compare different approaches using high quality data, to understand what best practice looks like and where lessons need to be learned, and to help develop more sustainable models for tackling complex social needs.
At present, the GO Lab are a team of thirteen academics and professionals from a range of backgrounds across the public, private and social sectors. We were established in July 2016 as a partnership between the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Since then we have seen rapid growth both in our responsibilities and achievements.
We have published academic research papers on social impact bonds and collaborative approaches to contracting services. We have developed introductory and technical guidance on outcomes-based contracting, developed a comprehensive database for UK social impact bonds, and created a range of in depth case studies. We run regular workshops, events, and webinars to disseminate our work and support national programmes such as the UK’s £80m Life Chances Fund.
Our work has been presented to the UK Prime Minister and the Head of the UK civil service, and we have worked with people at the highest levels of UK government departments, regional and local authorities to inform policy decisions. We have recruited our third cohort of Fellows of Practice who are experts across a range of sectors and who both help us keep our work relevant and help disseminate it to where it will be useful. We also co-host an annual international conference on social impact bonds which in 2018 drew together 125 researchers, policy-makers, local government and social sector representatives from over many different countries.