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2021 promises a real chance of putting Covid-19 behind us. For many of us, our work gives us the privilege of being part of the effort to ‘build back better’. What does that mean for what the GO Lab focuses on in 2021 and beyond? 

Learning from Covid-19 

As a research group, we particularly look forward to the critical role we can play in helping to distil, disseminate and make durable the learnings from the experience of the pandemic when it comes to cross-sector partnership for better social outcomes. 

Some of the learning is, sadly, about unpicking mistakes. In the UK, difficult questions are being asked about the emergency procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Procurement is a big focus of our work at the GO Lab, centred on the POGO peer learning group chaired by Prof Anne Davies of Oxford Law School. In 2021, Dr. Clare FitzGerald and Ruairi MacDonald will be part of a research project looking at how Covid-19 affected procurement of social services. Our Fellow of Practice Mark Roddan will lead a group thinking about how to raise the status of procurement among senior public sector leaders, and among other topics we will look at how data on procurement can be better collected and shared. 

Much of the learning from Covid-19 is about things that went well. We launched our Covid-19 resource hub near the beginning of the first wave of European lockdowns, and included some inspiring stories of how quickly frontline services adapted. Following a series of peer learning sessions convened and chaired by Clare, she and Tanyah Hameed wrote about how social outcomes contracts responded to the pandemic all over the world. We will add to this knowledge base as we report on how projects within the government’s £80m Life Chances Fund responded, as part of our evaluation of that programme. The evaluation will also see us publish reports on Children’s Social Care and the Kirklees Integrated Support Service, written by Tanyah and Franziska Rosenbach under the guidance of our Research Director Eleanor Carter

Community action and inter-organisational collaboration were big themes of the emergency response everywhere. In 2021 Clare, myself and Jo Blundell will be sharing some of the learnings from work we have been doing with the Essex Partnership Board, whose relevance was brought sharply to its members attention in the midst of the Covid-19 response. 

Joining in on the big questions 

The pandemic has only magnified some of the already fundamental issues that surround discussions related to improving social outcomes. We look forward to furthering our participation in some of these throughout 2021. 

One big question is how businesses will give back after being bailed out by taxpayers (for good reason) during the crisis. Building off work done by our Dean Ngaire Woods and researcher Olga Romanova, myself and Ian Taylor will be convening business and government leaders in local places to explore what role government might play in promoting responsible business. We expect this to feed into an exciting research project related to the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which we hope to be able to share more on soon. 

Another big question surrounds impact measurement. Wherever people are trying to improve social outcomes, they are trying to measure them too. Some are doing this because they require like-for-like comparison, and Dr Mehdi Shiva together with Ruby Dickson and Chevano Baker, is putting together tools to help make sense of the multitude of methodologies for achieving this. Alongside this work we continue to convene our Motives for Measurement group in collaboration with Collaborate CIC, tackling a potentially even trickier question: what is measurement for? 

In the light of the political turbulence in my own country and many others over the past few years, most of my recent blogs have been exploring how governments and their partners respond adequately to the needs and preferences of citizens. I’m joined in this effort by many of my colleagues including Leigh Crowley and Dr Ruth Dixon

A continued focus on practice 

In amongst the big questions lies the reality of day-to-day delivery and we are proud at the GO Lab to have a strong focus on practitioners. Michael Gibson has already done some great work improving our introductory and technical guidance, including writing a new introduction to outcome based contracting, and will be leading the development of more new guidance in 2021. 

One thing that practitioners constantly cry out for is better data and we are investing a lot of effort into our INDIGO initiative, which consists of a community, a system and a series of datasets related to improving social outcomes. Juliana Outes Velarde and Martina Di Folco are working on this alongside Eleanor and Ruairi on this. 

We are always keenly aware of how much can be learned from comparing practice across borders and we proud of the extensive network we have built with colleagues across the world, thanks principally to the efforts of Andreea Anastasiu and our Academic Director Mara Airoldi. Andreea will take the lead on putting together a great range of capacity building activities for practitioners from all over the world, and Leigh (mentioned earlier) will make sure we stay attuned to conversations closer to home through our UK peer learning groups. Our recently launched a global systematic review, and a paper on outcomes funds, both led by Eleanor, will help to reassure that this work will, as ever, be firmly underpinned by evidence. 

Finally, Laura Bonsaver will be making sure our newsletters keep coming to you throughout 2021 and that our website makes it easy for you to learn about all of the above and more. We hope that circumstances will allow us to see many of you in person for the Social Outcomes Conference 2021 on 9th and 10th September. Either way, we look forward to engaging with you throughout a hopeful and optimistic 2021. 

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