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 Andreea Anastasiu, Senior Policy Engagement Officer at the GO Lab, shares her reflections on the international conference that we co-hosted in September. If you’ve missed the conference, you can watch many of the sessions on the Blavatnik School of Government’s YouTube channel or browse through the presentation slides.

As more social impact bonds (SIBs) are being developed across the world, it is no wonder that a growing number of researchers are interested in their potential to improve outcomes in the public sector. Whilst academics and practitioners sometimes sit separately, this year’s international conference on social impact bonds and outcomes-based approaches sought to bridge the gap. Alongside our co-hosts, the Policy Innovation Research Unit, Newcastle University and RAND Europe, we brought together the foremost experts from academia, government and delivery organisations looking to navigate social impact bonds in a new way.

What started as a small academic conference three years ago, has this year been the gathering of over 125 researchers, policy-makers, local government representatives, and service providers from all corners of the world. We were truly delighted to welcome at this year’s conference experts from the United Kingdom, Canada, United Stated, Japan, South Africa, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, and Sweden. 

Bringing together practitioner and researcher voices is rather unusual for (what started as) an academic conference. They see the world through different lenses, they face different challenges, and they use a different type of language to describe their views. However, they both share a deep commitment to improving public services. This shared mission helped fuel two days of rich discussions, thought provoking debates, and perhaps the emergence of a new breed of expert – the ‘pracademic’, as one of our delegates from South Africa described herself.

While there is a wealth of learning we took away from the conference, there were a few points that resonated deeply with us.

The potential of SIBs as a tool for public service reform

Beyond the success or failure of individual SIB projects, there is limited conclusive evidence around the effectiveness of SIBs as a novel approach to commissioning public services. In her keynote addressCarolyn J. Heinrich, Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University, asked questions such as How do SIBs compare to other ways of commissioning services? What is truly novel about SIBs? She argued that while many of the defining features of a SIB are not new and have been used in public management for decades, it might be the way they interact with each other that gives SIBs their unique flavour. Understanding these elements and their interplay, as well as the limiting factors, is key to improving the design and delivery of SIBs. 

While SIBs continue to polarise opinions, there seemed to be an emerging consensus at the conference around the fact that the real long-term value of SIBs is linked to their ability to bring about broader system change. ‘Are SIBs the whole answer? Absolutely not,’ noted Toby Eccles, Co-founder of Social Finance UK, in the head to head debate with Mildred Warner, one of the world’s leading experts on restructuring government services. In the words of Toby, SIBs ‘are the starting point for creating change (…) an incremental step rather than the end of the journey.’ Others, however, casted doubt on the ability of SIBs to foster system-wide change, arguing that the focus on payable outcome metrics inevitably leads to a narrowing of the intervention and its impact. As Mildred sharply put it, ‘if you want a broad outcome focus, then the answer can’t be to monetise metrics’. 

Nevertheless, SIBs are not just about outcomes, metrics and payment triggers. What came across very strongly from the reflections on SIB implementation is that when it comes to SIBs the relational aspects are just as important as the technical ones. Ruth Dixon, one of our Research Fellows at the GO Lab, explores these relationships and highlights the possible tensions between different players in her blog, Culture Clash.   

The voice of the service users

With so many experts in attendance at the conference, one perspective was missing – the voice of service users. While SIBs are designed to address the needs of the most vulnerable in society, the voices of those that SIBs seek to help often seem to be missing from the development of such projects. Many at the conference agreed that practitioners and policy-makers need to work harder to ensure citizens and service users are directly engaged in the development of SIB approaches. As Professor Mildred Warner argued, SIBs need to strive for a more balanced approach between the technical planning and a process that enables strong democratic accountability.

Why we need to continue to investigate SIBs

Behind the deceptively simple logic of the SIB model whereby the government only pays when outcomes are achieved, there are a number of contradictions and challenges that the practice on the ground has revealed. Can SIBs genuinely foster innovation, when there seems to be little appetite for failure? Can a narrow definition of success metrics be reconciled with the ambition to achieve a lasting impact? Are SIBs delivering on the promise to reduce costs to government? Is there an inherent tension between target-driven performance management of outcomes-based contracts and collaborative innovation? These are just some of the questions that emerged from the practitioner-led sessions hosted on the second day of the conference.  

As the adoption of SIB approaches accelerates across the globe, the collection of evidence that enables better practice and a robust assessment of the impact and effectiveness of SIBs needs to go at the same speed. As we have argued in our recent report on SIBs, to achieve this we need more transparency across the sector and lessons learned from pilots need to be published whether they were successful or not. 

The response to bringing together academics and practitioners at this year’s conference was overwhelmingly positive. Moving forward, we need to continue to ask difficult questions, push for more transparency, and encourage dialogue between research and practice. We look forward to hosting an even richer range of perspectives at the fourth edition of the conference