Reflections on The Invisible Heart and the place of social impact bonds in the UK
In July, the GO Lab was honoured to present the UK and European Premiere of The Invisible Heart, a feature-length documentary film on social impact bonds (SIBs) focusing on their use in North America. The screening drew together a range of key players in the social impact sector, from local authority commissioners, to social investors and academics working at the epicentre of research. The screening coincided with the launch of our ‘Building the Tools’ report into the evidence behind UK SIBs to date.
To make space to hear the wide range of reactions we expected the film to generate, we hosted a panel debate after the screening, with Kathy Evans, CEO of Children England, Robert Pollock, Director at Social Finance and Tara Case, CEO of Ways to Wellness and GO Lab Fellow of Practice. Mara Airoldi, our Director at the GO Lab, chaired the panel.
Below, we reflect on some of the arguments made in the panel debate. You can also watch a recording of the debate online. While the film and ensuing discussion rehearsed some familiar themes on both sides of the debate about SIBs, our report calls for a more nuanced discussion based on the evidence, and an appreciation of what has been learnt from those that have been launched so far.
Stereotypes and a question on ethics
The film drew some criticism on the panel for how SIB stakeholders are represented. Drawing on his experience at Social Finance, the organisation that pioneered SIBs, Rob felt that the film used stereotypes of investors which did not mirror reality. ‘It is easy to think that Goldman Sachs and wealthy philanthropists are the face of SIBs… you are left with the impression that people want to make money off people’s suffering’. He went on to say that he has never met an investor who wanted this: ‘Yes they want their money back, but more importantly they want to achieve social benefit.’ On a similar theme, there was a reflection from members of both the panel and the audience that the voice of government – the number one stakeholder in any SIB – was notably absent from the film.
From an alternative perspective, Kathy raised concerns over how success is measured and attributed in the SIBs featured in the film. Reflecting on the Chicago SIB that aimed to get preschool children ready for kindergarten, she felt that it was false to assume 1 year of preschool could determine the following 18 years of a person’s life. Having worked in children’s services for over 20 years, she felt well qualified to reflect that ‘there are a lotof other things going on in that person’s life’. She also wrestled with the idea of doing a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) over 18 years - ‘how can you do this ethically?’
Resistance or innovation?
Moving the conversation to the resistance around SIBs, Tara argued that when it comes to using SIBs to support vulnerable people, ‘we are paralysed by the complexity…we are trying to solve the most complicated issues and we can’t assume the answer is simple.’ Kathy agreed that this is a challenge, and has seen how difficult it is to support the complex needs of children on the edge of the care system. Another key concern for her was that if there is too much of a focus on measuring outcomes in order to make payments, the human experience can be lost. She referred to Goodhart’s Law, ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure’.
On the other hand, one audience member who was keen to look at the positives of SIBs was James Ronicle, a Director at Ecorys, an organisation that has been involved in the evaluation of multiple SIBs. James argued that ‘SIBS do create room for innovation, especially in terms of flexibility and adaptability of the service provided’. Tara noted that when her SIB went live ‘it was important to find the right balance between risk and innovation’. Kathy didn’t think it had been clearly communicated whether SIBs are innovative or not. In her view, ‘using SIBs for innovation is like dancing to architecture. It’s the wrong verb for the noun. What you need for innovation is space’.
A place for consensus
Given the range of perspectives presented, it was clear that the debate on SIBs is still somewhat polarised. Rob highlighted that ‘as SIBs deal with social issues, they draw out opposing ideological arguments from the left and the right’. However, there was consensus around the need for a deeper analysis of what SIBs can and cannot do. ‘I want to see more transparency within social impact bonds so tax payers see value for money,’ said Rob. Echoing this, Mara argued that there is a ‘fear not to advertise failure’ and there is a need to push for more openness so we can learn together.
Many thanks to our panellists and audience members who joined us on the night. We thought it was a fruitful discussion and were glad to see new and familiar faces join the debate about public sector reform and the place for social impact bonds.
Please note that the opinions stated here are not necessarily held by the GO Lab. We wanted to give space for a range of perspectives an invite open discussion.
The GO Lab were lucky enough to interview Nadine Pequeneza, Director and Producer of The Invisible Heart. Please read part 1and part 2and let us know what you think on Twitter @ukgolab