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At this year’s Social Outcomes Conference, we welcomed over 220 delegates from across the world to the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. Our delegation included leading academics from the Harvard Kennedy School and Sorbonne University in Paris, senior officials from the European Commission, the Ministry of Economy in Chile, and the White House Office for Management and Budget in the US. We also hosted social innovators from Portugal, development finance experts from Japan, and frontline practitioners from the UK. The conference offered a unique space to draw together a multitude of perspectives, experience and expertise.

Our ambition was to engage in critical debate around emerging academic evidence, and explore practical steps to make a difference on the ground. Spaces for academics and practitioners to come together, listen and debate remain rare - perhaps because it is so challenging to create them - but as the conference showed, the rewards can be considerable. The conference was opened by Professor Stefan Dercon, who drew on his previous experience as Chief Economist at the UK's Department for International Development to explore some of the contradictions inherent in scientific approaches to public service delivery (watch his keynote address). Then we moved onto plenary sessions with world experts, and got stuck into the detail with intimate parallel sessions and roundtables. Here’s a snapshot of what went on.  

Impact bonds - growing and changing 

Much of the conference focused on impact bonds. The first was launched in Peterborough in 2010 in the UK to reduce reoffending rates in young men. By simply looking around at everyone as they entered the lecture theatre, it was clear that impact bonds have grown significantly since then. At present, there are 164 impact bonds around the world supporting 513,041 services user, with $441.6m capital raised. You can view more detail on our projects database and interactive map. We heard from those developing impact bonds in Hong Kong, Canada, Chile, Colombia and more. Practitioners shared with us the similar experiences of working in new partnerships, and the tension of balancing reputational risk and the desire to innovate. They also shared the many unique aspects their impact bonds - often a reflection of the context they were developed in. 

In the first plenary session, James Ronicle presented the results of his evaluation of development impact bonds (DIBs) (read the evaluation report or a summary blog). This explored four DIBs and produced in depth case studies on each. The evaluators were surprised by the great variation in terms of outcomes payments, size, types of stakeholders and more, but they found relatively consistent ‘DIB effects’. Based on this, they concluded that impact bonds could be considered a loose set of principles rather than one set model. This idea was echoed throughout the conference - in the closing plenary session, Abha Thorat-Shah reflected that impact bonds were like a recipe that her mother-in-law was always trying to perfect. Some saw impact bonds as a catalyst or a trigger that can kick a system into doing something differently.

Catalysing change in the public sector

In his keynote address, Stefan Dercon hypothesised that the reason that impact bonds and outcome based contracting remain attractive in government is because they are perceived to reduce reputational, rather than financial risk - but he surmised that they are unlikely to become mainstream. He also said that we need to make more of quality monitoring and feedback loops in order to improve service delivery - a theme that came up repeatedly throughout the conference. 

Looking more broadly than impact bonds, in one of our plenary sessions, Clare FitzGerald shared the findings of the latest GO Lab report - Are we rallying together? Collaboration and public sector reform. This looks at ten collaborative projects across the UK, why they emerged, what they look like and how collaborative working is ingrained. A crucial part of this was to understand how success was demonstrated and accountability was ensured. One example from this report was alliance contracting in Plymouth, and GO Lab Fellow of Practice Gary Wallace explained how a successful pooling of budgets helped different local agencies to work together. This opened up the floor for broader discussions around cross sector collaboration and public sector reform. 

Practical tools to improve social outcomes 

A great benefit of convening experts from a range of sectors is that it can create a space to share knowledge and skills. One parallel session was dedicated to how we can best measure social impact. Building on his blog, Mehdi Shiva said that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to measuring social impact. We can’t always use standardised measures for complex and multifaceted social issues, and should opt for a blend of metrics instead. For example, measuring students’ grades, attendance, and behaviour could help represent ‘quality of education’ rather than one standard metric. 

When measuring social outcomes we also have to ensure that they are a reflection of the needs of the service users. Adam Kybird argued that user voice is a key driver in how outcomes are set well. For example, some people have tested the design with beneficiaries to see if the correct outcomes are being measured. Whilst many stories were offered, there was consensus that more needs to be done to put beneficiaries front and centre of service design.

What was your greatest takeaway? 

At this year’s Social Outcomes Conference we were thrilled to engage in informed discussion and debate with individuals from a range of perspectives, backgrounds and countries. We’d love to hear what your main takeaways were and what you might be doing differently. Join the discussion on twitter or get in touch on

A date for your diary – The Social Outcomes Conference 2020 will be on 3-4th September 2020.