7 Nov 2019, 5:15 p.m.
Nigel Ball is the Executive Director of the GO Lab. He writes a monthly blog to showcase our thoughts on research and practice across the sector. This month he shares key themes that emerged from the Social Outcomes Conference and explores their importance. He welcomes comments via Twitter (@Nigel_Ball) or LinkedIn.
Our Social Outcomes Conference 2019 focused on the big, big topic of how government, private and non-profit organisations can work together towards better outcomes. Within this, there was still a lot of attention given to one particular approach to doing this: impact bonds. Impact bonds are just one tool, still with mixed evidence and limited use. But they uncover a broad set of issues which have a rich pedigree in research and practice. To make sense of this, the GO Lab team reflected on ten broad themes where we hope to keep the conversation alive and drive towards enhanced knowledge and improved practice.
At the highest level sits a question of whether governments should work with private and non-profit organisations at all. The main opposition party in the UK are currently campaigning for a general election on a platform that calls this into question. Yet even under a policy of “insourcing”, most policymakers will recognise on closer inspection that there is rarely a straightforward binary choice, and that different circumstances demand different answers.
Anyone who has been in organisation delivering both grants and contracts – myself included – will feel an acute difference between the two. But to the outside eye, the differences are sometimes less apparent, especially when a government agency is the funder. There seem to multiple dimensions, varying on factors like how detailed the funder is about their expectations, and how much reporting back is required. Why does it matter so much how the government structures its financial relationship with external organisations? And how should this choice reflect the circumstances of each case?
Public procurement adds up to a monumental 12% of GDP in OECD countries. Yet so often, procurement is viewed as a clerical task, chiefly concerned with box-ticking to ensure some set of arcane regulations are not transgressed. Many leaders within and outside of government seem to view procurement processes as an obstacle to change, rather than a tool. We think that is a huge missed opportunity, and we have already pulled together a working group to discuss how procurement can be done better, and how those tasked with doing it can gain the confidence to be more creative.
It is increasingly recognised that public services are delivered by a complex of web of organisations within and outside government. This raises some big questions, particularly about how government agencies should combine the role of both participant and leader. We explored some of these in our recent report,Are We Rallying Together?But we need to keep investigating how learning is shared within these networks of government, civil society, and businesses, so that services continually improve. We also need to work out how accountability and oversight ought to function. These are becoming more and more hotly debated topics.
Measuring social outcomes has a rich history, as this blog from our Economist Mehdi Shiva explains – but it is far from solved. Academics and charities have long grappled with the question. And it is perhaps obvious that governments could do with a clearer picture of the social outcomes of the populations they serve, and how their policies affect these. But increasingly, parts of the private sector, under increasing pressure from shareholders, customers and employees, are searching for ways to demonstrate their (supposedly positive) social impact.
When talking big ideas on how government should operate, we must be careful not to lose sight of the ultimate goal to improve people’s experience of their own lives. This feels especially true in the current political climate, with many communities feeling “left behind”, and trust in institutions being eroded. Clearly, the decisions of government agencies at all levels need to better account for the preferences of citizens. Many are calling for people to be enabled to do more for themselves, rather than being “done to” by a faceless bureaucracy. Within this, we need to have honest conversations about how to maintain equity and quality in the delivery of services.
There is an important movement towards open government– pushing to enhance public accountability by making government administrative information publicly available. We want to see governments treating their contracts more openly. Impact bonds in particular enjoy considerable political and academic attention, and rely by their very nature on forms of measurement that are easily shared. The GO Lab is maintaining a projects database which has three aims: to help to ensure equal access to information for the potential project partners, help those exploring similar approaches, and enable more research to inform future practice and policy.
Currently, much of the discourse around the above areas draws its insights from leading practice in advanced economies – the UK, the rest of Europe, the US, Australia, Japan. Yet, the questions we explore have equal – and sometimes, even greater – salience in less developed economies. We want to ensure these conversations are joined together.
In much of the engagement work the GO Lab does, we detect a strong appetite from those who pioneer new approaches to learn from each other. We think we can play a useful role as a convener of these conversations. We also want to align with other professional networks to determine what the people making decisions and setting policy most want to learn about, and to play our small part in supplying them with the relevant skills and knowledge.
Within all of this, of course we need to keep talking about impact bonds themselves. Many countries, municipalities and international institutions continue to explore them, so it is critical to keep discussing both their promise and their performance. When they work and when they don’t, we need to unpick why. Is it the way financial risk is transferred? The entry of private capital? Or the attempt to put more focus on more long-term outcomes?
These are all huge topics with their own rich pedigree of knowledge and research, and their own active and engaged communities. We are not staking a claim to any of them, but hoping to contribute meaningfully to the conversations which are already underway. Through our annual Social Outcomes Conference and other means, we also hope to host some of discussions ourselves. Please do get in touch!