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At the GO Lab, a large part of our work looks at impact bonds, an innovative model for funding social programmes that brings together public, private and non-profit organisations. This work provides a starting point for broader discussions on some of the most salient dilemmas that policymakers and practitioners face across the world. Can new approaches such as impact investing offer a sustainable model for funding social programmes at scale? Can large scale outcomes-based programmes stay rooted in the local communities they seek to serve? Does a narrow focus on measurable results really lead to better social outcomes or does it in fact undermine performance? Can a culture of robust measurement of outcomes be reconciled with the aspiration to establish trust-based collaborations across public, private and voluntary organisations?

These are big questions and it is hardly surprising that outcomes-based tools such as impact bonds remain highly contested. However, this is exactly why we need to continue to have conversations with the global community of scholars, policymakers, public sector managers, philanthropists, socially-minded investors, voluntary sector leaders, social entrepreneurs, and technical experts that is emerging in this field. And crucially, we need to keep asking: how can we create space in this debate for the voices of citizens?

This is why at this year’s international Social Outcomes Conference, our annual conference hosted at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, we will explore with the most distinguished academics and practitioners in the field many of these themes. We will cover a wealth of topics, perspectives and disciplines, but some key overarching themes run across the programme. 

This year we will ask some hard questions about how we can make progress on transparency to enable more learning across the sector and reduce information asymmetry among stakeholders.

Taking stock of the global evidence and experience on impact bonds

Love them or hate them, impact bonds continue to be developed across the world. Keeping track of new projects is not always easy, but according to the Brookings Institution’s Global Impact Bonds Snapshot as of 1st June 2019 there were 163 impact bonds across 29 countries. Our own database, which makes detailed project-by-project data publicly available, counts 68 in the UK alone. With the impact bond model itself constantly evolving as it is being adapted to new contexts, we look forward to comparing emerging approaches with practitioners from India, Malaysia, Chile, Colombia, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Japan, Portugal, Italy, France, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Georgia, Canada, the US and of course the UK. As ever in our work, the practitioner insights will be supplemented by a forensic look at the evidence base emerging from recent impact bond evaluations and other research studies. 

Of course, building a robust evidence base is only possible with access to reliable and comprehensive datasets. In our evidence report last year we called for more openness and transparency in the field. This year we will ask some hard questions about how we can make progress on this to enable more learning across the sector and reduce information asymmetry among stakeholders. 

Capacity-building for robust implementation of outcomes contracts

As the debate on impact bonds continues, some consensus is emerging around the need to strengthen the capacity of government and other stakeholders so they can design and implement robust outcomes-based programmes. The challenge here is partly a question of skills and technical knowledge (outcomes definition, metrics, pricing outcomes, procurement), and partly a question of creating tools and frameworks that enable contracting for outcomes. 

More fundamentally though, how can we bring about a shift in culture - in the way government thinks about and plans service provision (moving from inputs to outcomes), a recalibration of the way government contracts out with private and voluntary organisations (from competition to collaboration) and a change in mindset (from fear of failure to flexibility by co-designing, adapting and adjusting solutions).

Amid all the technical expertise available in the field and the emergence of centres of expertise, can we work together towards a shared agenda for capacity-building that may help realise the potential of outcomes-based contracting as a tool for public sector reform.

Exploring new collaborative approaches to public service delivery

Even the most ardent supporters of impact bonds agree that they are not the answer to all the complex problems that governments face. Is it that we are overly fixated on impact bonds, and is this distracting us from other conversations we should be having? Part of the appeal with impact bonds is that they provide a framework for developing partnerships between state and non-state actors, and can help measure their impact. But if we look beyond impact bonds, what other frameworks are there for structuring and governing effective collaborative approaches to public service delivery? We have started exploring this question in our Rallying Together report, and will continue to ask how we can design systems for feedback and learning that deal with the complexity of both the problem and the system around it, as well as ensuring transparency and accountability for public services.

It is hard to disagree that more collaboration between public sector organisations and other stakeholders is helpful or indeed necessary to tackle the seemingly growing range of social challenges we face. But it is also worth considering the limits of collaboration and the implications for how we think about the role of the state, accountability, democratic rights, and where responsibility rests for solving complex social problems. 

These are all conversations worth having. And we can move from talk to action by bringing together not just the most original and critical thinkers in the field, but also policymakers, donor agencies, philanthropies, service providers and other experts who can take the insights and knowledge generated through these discussions to enable and enact real change in the communities they serve. 

The Social Outcomes Conference takes place at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford, on 5-6th September 2019. You can see the programme and book your place here.