As she takes on as Executive Director, GO Lab's Andreea Anastasiu reflects on the team's journey so far and shares highlights from our upcoming work.
Our unique DNA comes from the way in which we weave together the research, data and engagement strands of our work, to generate actionable knowledge that can inform, inspire and improve practice.
In 2016, shortly after I joined the GO Lab, I met with a veteran social impact bonds practitioner. He unequivocally proclaimed that impact bonds were dead. Having left a job in local government to become the second member of a nascent team at the GO Lab, I couldn’t help but wonder: had I made a terrible mistake in taking up a role in a team set up precisely to investigate the evidence and strengthen practice around this apparently extinct funding model?
Almost seven years on, impact bonds are far from dead (although they might have changed name to ‘social outcomes contracts’ or ‘social outcomes partnerships’). As the social outcomes contracting ecosystem has evolved, so has the GO Lab – we’ve grown to a team of over 15, we’re tackling new, complex research questions that look at cross-sector collaboration beyond impact bonds, we’re pioneering new approaches to engaged research, and are opening up data and evidence to a global (and growing) community of practitioners. Our unique DNA comes from the way in which we weave together the research, data and engagement strands of our work, to generate actionable knowledge that can inform, inspire and improve practice.
This unique approach does not come without challenges – for practitioners we sometimes sound too ‘academic’; the scholarly community, I suspect, would like us to focus more on publishing papers and less on talking to practitioners. There are some real tensions inherent in our unusual way of working, and these need to be constantly carefully balanced. What makes it all worthwhile is our deep sense of mission to enable governments around the world to foster effective cross-sector partnerships for better social outcomes. And of course, it helps that along the way we get to work with incredibly committed change-makers in governments around the world, bold practitioners, and bright researchers. Looking forward, as I take on a new role within the team, I reflect below on some of the things I am most excited about in our upcoming work.
A cutting-edge approach to evidence
Our research is the engine driving our work. Our evaluation of the Life Chances Fund has given us an opportunity to adopt innovative approaches to research methodologies, data, and the live sharing of emerging insights to support learning before the full evaluation work is completed. What makes our work stand out, beyond the integrity and high-quality that being an Oxford University institution entails, is the responsive, dynamic and constructive nature of our research.
For example, we’ve stretched our research agenda to investigate what makes place-based collaborations effective and how we can build in more trust in public-private partnerships through relational contracting. One of our most exciting projects is opening up evidence and making it easily available to policymakers around the world using artificial intelligence – the SyROCCo machine learning tool. The tool marries up researchers’ brain power (our researchers have sifted through over 11,000 papers) with the power of machine learning, to make curated, high-quality evidence on outcomes-based contracting available to all. Beyond the realm of social outcomes contracting, this is a truly pioneering way to enable wide engagement with research and evidence, better and faster social programme design, more robust practice, and ultimately better life outcomes. A prototype for now, this tool could become a truly game-changing way for policymakers and practitioners to make better use of an ever growing, ever more complex body of evidence. Do check it out, if you haven’t already.
Data as a public good
By far the most popular resource on the GO Lab Knowledge Hub is our global Impact Bond Dataset, developed through a pioneering data collaborative, which relies on voluntary data contributions from the community of practice around the world. A brilliant example of the power of inclusive evidence-building, the dataset is an open access knowledge asset that was developed with the community, for the community. It requires diligent ongoing effort to develop meaningful, comparable and trusted data and this is a community-wide global effort, with data stewards now based in Brazil and South Africa. This work would not have been possible without the deep commitment to data transparency embedded in the Life Chances Fund. This enabled us to build the first iteration of the Impact Bond Dataset (at the time UK-focused) and gave us a springboard to develop a harmonised global dataset.
Excitingly, the LCF’s commitment to transparency extends to project-level outcomes achievement data, which we will publish via the INDIGO Impact Bond Dataset in September. We hope this will inspire many other data holders to come forward and share data openly, so that others may learn from it too. Treating data as a public good is challenging – while everyone agrees sharing data is important, there’s less consensus on how to do so and how to fund the infrastructure that’s required to gather, quality assure and package data in accessible ways. We remain determined to further improve and expand open access data tools, because sharing data transparently bears huge potential not only to strengthen accountability and build public trust, but also to help accelerate best practice and strengthen implementation of services for those that need them most.
None of our research and data work would make much of a difference if it only lived in academic journals or tucked away on a website. This is why we are tireless in engaging with policymakers and practitioners far and wide. Over the past seven years we have developed a comprehensive programme of engagement – from bespoke learning opportunities for local government and civil servants, to curated peer learning networks that prioritise open learning across sectors and disciplines, and global convenings that offer a neutral and open platform for meaningful dialogue with the emerging evidence in our field. The pioneering work on social outcomes contracting in the UK has inspired lots of other organisations and countries to experiment with this model. We are routinely invited to share our insights with stakeholders from countries as diverse as Ghana, Oman, France, Chile, Kenya and Singapore.
To us, engagement is not merely about knowledge dissemination. It’s about deep listening, learning from policymakers, and engaging with humility and compassion, mindful of the pressures and challenges they face. Our convenings attract a very diverse audience, but none more so than our annual Social Outcomes Conference (SOC). Since 2018, when we started hosting the conference at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, we’ve heard that SOC has been a key space for advancing a deeper, richer understanding of how and when social outcomes contracting can make a difference. We’ve got an incredible programme for this year’s SOC23 – including a keynote address by one of the world’s most prominent social policy scholars, a book launch, and a closing public talk with a figure whose service and outstanding contributions to public life span five decades.
Across the globe, the way we support those most vulnerable in our communities to enable them to live thriving lives is in deep need of reform. In the UK and around the world, we need more social initiatives grounded in the local context; we need funding models that bring together multiple organisations to overcome complexity and fragmentation; and we need more person-centred approaches. In times of monetary constraints and rising demand for social services, we need to be as effective as possible, using data to measure impact and understand what works. At stake are better life outcomes for millions of individuals, a more equitable society, and greater trust in public institutions.
If you’d like to learn more about our latest work and explore how you might be able to engage with us, drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of gratitude
In the past seven years we have seen a lot of change, but one thing has remained constant – the unwavering support of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, where we are based, and that of our founding partners in the UK Government. For that we are deeply grateful. My gratitude also extends to our wonderful global network of GO Lab friends and supporters whose generous contributions to our work have strengthened our research and taken our insights to new audiences.