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In this blog, our outgoing Executive Director, Nigel Ball, offers some personal reflections on the GO Lab’s achievements, his three top lessons, and the Lab’s future plans.

Given the current economic circumstances and growing pressure on public services, not just in the UK but elsewhere, there needs to be much more innovation, collaboration and prevention in the delivery of public services – particularly around the toughest social issues.

I wrote these words in 2017, shortly after joining the Blavatnik School of Government to help establish the Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab). I came with first-hand experience of the highs and lows of government partnerships with the private and social sectors. I knew there must be better ways; I thought the GO Lab could find them, explain them, and get them adopted.

Now it is time for me to move on. Have we made progress? We know people are listening. Our online resources were accessed over 300,000 times last year. We convene the world’s foremost gathering in the field. Since we started, we’ve welcomed 82 Visiting Fellows of Practice and hosted hundreds more at regular learning group sessions. We’ve published 47 policy reports, data on 276 impact bonds worldwide, learning from 154 organisations in the Life Chances Fund, and built an amazing team who can be justly proud of these amazing achievements.

My three biggest learnings

These numbers show how much people care about the quality of government partnerships, but they only tell part of the story. The GO Lab’s approach is unique, and has taught me three important things.

1. We need to build more roads into academic research

When I joined the GO Lab, I realised I had hugely underestimated the depth of insights available within academic research. I was astounded by the superior answers that could be found when you just had time and space to think. That sounds like an indulgence – and too often, it is. But with the right effort, those deep insights and superior answers can be integrated with policy decisions and day-to-day practice.

What we have built at the GO Lab is an approach that does that: we weave rich threads of academic insight into diverse strands of policy and practice work. It is skilled, effortful work that doesn’t happen on its own. It requires finding academics who are committed to impact, policymakers who make time to listen, and brokers who understand both worlds and can span them. We work hard to build strong networks of all three of these groups at the GO Lab.

2. Everyone asks what to do, (almost) no one asks how to do it

Social problems surely have solutions, and lots of research and policy is dedicated to working out what these are. This is valuable and important work, but it’s not enough. Success stands and falls on implementation. No matter how well-evidenced a programme is, it can still fail if it is implemented without suitable accountability structures, without adequate oversight of progress, and without the right set of relationships.

Despite this, too few people feel able to challenge the usual implementation approaches. Procurements are launched, contracts are signed, and the same sets of rules and behaviours get inherited by successive programmes, even when we know they are not fit for purpose. The GO Lab continues to work tirelessly to persuade people that they need to consider not just what to do, but how.

3. There are no right answers, just better ones

In the early days of the GO Lab, we found ourselves at the heart of fierce debates on the merits and dangers of certain partnership approaches. It took a long time for us to persuade our audiences that evidence did not definitively recommend for or against any one approach. The unsatisfying truth is that no partnership model is perfect. Each one merely balances the same trade-offs in different ways. Top-down authority may make services too rigid, but take it away and you get co-ordination problems. Measuring outcomes can be reductive and distracting, but without it you can’t understand or communicate the totality of your success (or failure).

The most effective approaches are those that work to find the best balance of trade-offs for their particular place and time. That may not settle the argument for those wedded to one approach, but it is understood instinctively by anyone who has ever tried to make a partnership work on the ground.

A final reflection

The GO Lab’s successes are shared successes, and it has been privilege to work both with an amazing team and a set of forward-thinking partners – not least the UK government, whose creativity and commitment have been instrumental throughout. I am excited about what lies ahead for the team. Our innovative evaluation of the Life Chances Fund is unlocking rich insights that will help improve partnerships worldwide. Our pioneering global data collaborative is growing, and now incorporates cutting-edge AI tools. With support from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation we continue to expand our partnerships in the Global South - opening up access to expertise and convening spaces for dialogue across sectors and geographies.

Tragically, global problems have only got worse since 2017. Climate change, social marginalisation, declining wellbeing, and growing inequality cannot be tackled by any one sector alone. Partnerships are more important than ever. Thanks to the GO Lab’s pioneering work, we are learning much more about how to do them well.

I will greatly miss working with the hundreds of you who are making the difference every day in policy and practice. I hope to see many of you at the Social Outcomes Conference in September.

I would like to extend particular personal thanks to my colleagues Mara Airoldi, Eleanor Carter, and Andreea Anastasiu, who I am proud to say is going to be taking over my role. Also to Alina Sellman, Val Keen and James Magowan in the UK government, whose support has been unwavering.