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Covid-19 has brought the relationship between academic research and policymaking into sharp relief. Politicians’ claims to ‘follow the science’, however spurious at times, reflect a public desire that they do so. But we have also learnt that science equivocates, and sometimes even suggests contradictory alternatives. Even when there is a clear scientific consensus, decisions must still be overlaid with political and other considerations. 

At the GO Lab, finding ways to reconcile these tensions is part of our ethos. One of our most effective ways to bridge the gaps between policy, practice and research is the annual Social Outcomes Conference, and this September we host the fifth edition. Once again, we will bring together ‘doers’ and ‘thinkers’ to discuss and debate some of the most pressing issues related to improving social outcomes. 

This year, the global emergency means we will be congregating online. While we cannot deny something will be lost by not meeting face-to-face, we think much will be gained. More people will be able to participate, from more parts of the world, and the sessions will become more interactive. Since we will not incur venue and catering costs, we do not need to charge the usual participation fee. And though we haven’t yet found a way to serve coffee online, we are coming up with ways to replicate the informal, social element of conferences that can be so valuable. 

After our last social outcomes conference in 2019, I wrote about 10 key themes we need to explore, which we boiled down to five in our call for papers and proposals (six once we added emergency responses to draw in accounts of Covid-19). We received a diverse range of submissions in response to our call, and coupled with the sessions we have curated ourselves, we are expecting the conference to be more enriching than ever. 

Collaboration and communities. Vulnerable communities all over the world do not always receive the equal access to services they deserve; even when they do, they can end up feeling and being ‘done to’ by those who offer assistance, whether through obligation or kindness. But, as I wrote in March, listening to service users brings dilemmas. What tools are out there for ensuring equality of access and for including the users of services more in the way they operate – and are they effective? 

Contracting and governance. A notorious aphorism regarding contracts is after they have been signed, people only look at them again if something has gone wrong. This of course belies the importance of contracts in governing the relationship between two or more parties. Does it matter if it takes almost as long to design a contract as it does to perform it? Should we rely more on informal relationships, or does that open the door to corruption? 

Data and transparency. A modern car is a masterpiece of engineering, and the modern car dashboard is no exception – you can scroll through screen after screen of data and satisfy the most esoteric of curiosities about your vehicle or its journey. While this may tingle the spine of a certain type of motorist, most people’s objective when they get in their car is to get to their destination as efficiently and comfortably as possible. Modern organisations are often obsessed with data, too, but they should also ask how it serves their objectives. Is it aiding decision-making, or merely creating the illusion of control?  

Impact bonds and outcomes funds. Many places host a complex and diverse range of organisations working towards better outcomes for people living there. A popular metaphor for this is an ‘ecosystem’. In that case, where do different types of organisations fit in? Are the things referred to as ‘impact bonds’ and ‘outcomes funds’ the apex predator, controlling their territory through money and power? Or are they the sunlight and water enabling everything else to grow? The answer seems to depend where in the world you are looking. 

Measurement and metrics. Most people would agree that defining what success looks like, and knowing when you have achieved it, seems a useful thing to do when setting out to improve social outcomes. But it is fraught with questions. Different stakeholders might have different versions of success. The validity of how success is measured may be questioned. And whether it is right to dole out of rewards for achieving success, or issue penalties for failing to, pushes the discussion into even more contested territory. 

Emergency responses. All of the sessions at the conference will involve discussion of the Covid-19 emergency, which has affected everything everywhere, and will continue to do so for years to come. At times it will be appropriate to bring the issue centre stage, and reflect not just on what has been learnt so far, but how achieving outcomes in a post Covid-19 world might have changed. 

You can sign up for the conference here. I look forward to seeing you there!