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Insights from the UK's Commissioning Better Outcomes Evaluation

Engaging with Evidence is a series of interactive online convenings hosted by the Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab) and designed to encourage a greater understanding of the latest evidence on the use of cross-sector partnerships focused on outcomes. The sessions are hosted monthly, and attract a diverse range of practitioners from different sectors, as well as researcher from across the world.  

Building independent, high-quality evidence 

At the GO Lab, we believe in the importance of building independent, high-quality evidence and disseminating it effectively to inform policy decisions and improve practice on the ground. As new evidence around the use of outcomes-based approaches is starting to emerge, we hope that with this series of online convenings we can continue to bridge the gap between evidence and practice, and help foster real dialogue between policymakers, practitioners and researchers in an honest, transparent and constructive way. Both veterans and explorers interested in better understanding the latest evidence around the use of outcomes-based approaches are welcome to join these sessions.  

Throughout 2022, Engaging with Evidence will offer an open platform for policymakers, practitioners and researchers around the world to engage with key findings from the latest research and evaluation work in the field. They will have the opportunity to discuss new evidence directly with the authors of research and evaluation studies, hear the practical insights of the partners involved in the development and implementation of the projects under discussion, and reflect on the relevance of the evidence to their own work.  

What to expect

Each session lasts 90 minutes and features contributions from a diverse panel of experts, as well as ample time for contributions and questions from all participants. Discussions at each session are grounded in the findings of a recent evaluation or research study, with additional practical insights brought in by stakeholders directly involved in the work or project under discussion. Each session follows a set format:  

  1. Setting the context & presentation of the evaluation/ research findings
  2. Discussion with the panel and audience questions
  3. Closing remarks 

If you’d like to suggest a topic or highlight a recent study that you’d like to see discussed on a future session, please contact our moderator Ernesto Oyarbide-Magaña.

Session recording

Listen to the audio recording of the session.

Session overview

In this session we explored the latest findings from the evaluation of the UK's Commissioning Better Outcomes (CBO) Fund. For this discussion we were joined by the authors of the CBO third update report, as well as a range of other experienced practitioners and researchers.

During the session we focused on the six core characteristics of the social impact bonds (SIBs) supported through the CBO Fund (as synthesised in the report under the SIB Hexagon framework), and explored how the underlying motivations for developing a SIB project influence these characteristics, and how in turn they influence the delivery and impact of SIB projects.

We explored with our guest speakers practical examples of how these characteristics evolve over the course of designing and implementing a SIB, and looked at the inherent tensions and trade-offs when developing these projects, and the benefits that these characteristics or design choices can bring to the project. We also reflected on what the findings of the report mean for those designing and implementing outcomes-focused programmes in the UK and internationally.

About the Report

The Commissioning Better Outcomes (CBO) programme is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, and aims to support the development of more social impact bonds (SIBs) and other outcomes-based contracting models in England. The CBO programme launched in 2013 and closed to new applications in 2016, although it will continue to operate under grant management until 2024. It originally made up to £40m available to pay for a proportion of outcomes payments for SIBs and similar outcomes-based contractual models in complex policy areas.

The evaluation of the CBO is being undertaken by Ecorys and ATQ. It is focusing on the following three areas:

  • Advantages and disadvantages of commissioning a service through a SIB model; the overall added value of using a SIB model; and how this varies in different contexts.
  • Challenges in developing SIBs and how these could be overcome.
  • The extent to which CBO has met its aim of growing the SIB market in order to enable more people, particularly those most in need, to lead fulfilling lives, in enriching places and as part of successful communities. It also explores what more The National Lottery Community Fund and other stakeholders could do to meet this aim.

During our session, we will explore the third Update Report of the independent CBO Evaluation. The report primarily provides a baseline comparative analysis of the nine projects that feature as in-depth reviews in the evaluation, and also provides some updates on the progress of the projects that are over half-way through delivery. The comparative analysis is underpinned by a framework of analysis developed by the evaluation team, which identifies six core characteristics or dimensions of SIBs: proportion of payment predicated on outcomes; degree to which project built on invest-to-save logic; degree of counterfactual rigour in outcome measurement; extent to which provider is shielded from financial risk by social investors; extent to which VCSEs are involved in contracted delivery; level of performance management.

Among other things, the report finds that:

  • ‘The ‘win, win, win’ of SIBs is rarely a certain win for any of the key parties. Even if the investor, fund manager and/or intermediary are able to generate the returns they are expecting, they will have had to have worked very hard to achieve returns that, reflecting the social nature of these contracts, are frequently modest.
  • Stakeholders in the projects they have reviewed were of the view that they achieved more outcomes, and greater social impact because of the stronger performance management that was built into the SIB mechanism, and the impetus provided by linking payment to outcomes.
  • It remains, however, challenging to prove objectively that a SIB works better than a conventional contract, (and justifies the additional cost, time and complexity of its development), because we cannot compare a SIB contract head-to-head with a conventional contract that addresses a similar cohort, using the same intervention in the same wider economic and social circumstances. Without such a rigorous measure of the counterfactual to the SIB mechanism itself, it will always be difficult to prove what many attest – that SIBs do improve outcome performance significantly.’