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The Social Outcomes Conference is the annual convening of the world's leading researchers, policymakers and practitioners working to improve social outcomes. As in previous years, the conference will feature discussions on the latest thinking and findings from academic research, alongside insights from the emerging practice across different geographies, disciplines and policy areas. 

Due to COVID-19 meeting and travelling restrictions, the conference will once again take place online, as it did in 2020. However, we expect to be able to offer a limited number of in-person places to those wishing to attend the conference in Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government is fully equipped for ‘hybrid’ in-person/online events.

This year, the conference will be followed by an Engaging with Evidence series consisting of monthly online events which will pick up on themes from the conference. These sessions are designed to provide a forum to tackle or expand on topics that could not be accommodated in the main conference agenda. Research contributions may also be considered for publication in an upcoming special issue of the International Public Management Journal. For further details on both opportunities, please refer to the ‘Additional opportunities to share your work’ section at the end of this call.

Date: Thursday 9 and Friday 10 September 2021

Location: Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, and online (hybrid conference)

Hosted by: Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab)

Deadline for call for papers: 30 April 2021

Call for papers and presentations

In keeping with previous editions, the conference aims to bring together the rigour of cutting-edge academic research with an applied, real-world focus. Our ambition is for a vibrant exchange between researchers and practitioners to enhance both research and implementation. Central to this ambition is our commitment to enabling and inspiring more ‘engaged research’ across the field. As such, we encourage submissions from:

  • academics
  • applied researchers
  • policymakers
  • contracting bodies/commissioners 
  • providers of social services
  • social investors
  • responsible businesses
  • other stakeholders in the field of social outcomes 

Submissions can take one of four forms: research paper abstractsproposals for practice-focused presentationsresearch panel proposals (a cluster of research paper presentations on a theme), and symposia proposals (a cluster of research paper presentations and/or practice-focused presentations on a theme). Please submit your proposal by 30 April 2021. The provisional programme of the conference will be announced in June 2021.

This year, those submitting abstracts for original research may also wish to submit their work to an upcoming special issue in the International Public Management Journal. Please find full details on the special issue and submission introductions here and contact Dr Clare FitzGerald with any questions.

Please complete this form below by 30 April, 12pm BST. Abstracts submitted using this form will be arranged into panels by the conference organisers.  

Please complete this form below by 30 April, 12pm BST. Please use this form to outline the theme that links the individual contributions as well as describe the individual contributions themselves.

SOC21's key question

While we are open to submissions that span academic disciplines and professional backgrounds, we are interested in contributions that explore how charities, businesses, communities and governments can work together to maximise positive changes in people’s lives. Of particular interest is the role of governments, powerful actors who influence the behaviour of other organisations in a multitude of ways – some intended, some unintended – through rulemaking, contracts, and collaborations alike. As governments increasingly rely on the unique strengths of multiple actors across sectors to pursue positive social outcomes, the promises of partnership arrangements often lie in a more efficient use of resources, the ability to better interpret and respond to the needs of communities, and to achieve better social outcomes than one sector can achieve alone. However, such arrangements are difficult to organise, and people from all sectors seek a better understanding of the different ways in which these partnerships emerge and can be sustained. Hence, SOC21 is guided by the following question: 

How can government combine its multiple roles – sometimes as provider, funder, facilitator, and regulator – to support activity which improves social outcomes?

To explore this question, we recommend that submissions clearly demonstrate how they speak to one or more of the following conference themes.

Conference themes

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Contracting for outcomes has a long history and is increasingly featured as part of a wide literature covering government outsourcing and payment by results. Social impact bonds – which are increasingly known as social outcomes contracts – continue to be launched all over the world and attract a broad network of practitioners. But, these partnerships between governments, charities and social investors can take widely varying forms. Why is this? How do the efforts in different policy domains and geographies compare with one another? What lessons can be learned from efforts to date that might inform government contracting practice more broadly? Might the disruption of COVID-19 lead practitioners and policymakers towards or away from these practices?

While an outcomes logic is perhaps most explicit in outcome-based contracting, there exist a host of other managerial models and learning routines that seek to focus the attention of those delivering goods and services - be they government employees, private contractors, or issue- or policy-based multi-organisational partnerships - on continual improvement with the ultimate goal of improving the societal outcomes governments prioritize for the people they serve. Examples include (but are certainly not limited to) performance management, performance-based budgeting, venture philanthropy, learning forums, rapid cycle testing, and collaborative performance regimes. But, how well do these models work, especially in comparison to one another? Are there emerging practices worth exploring? And, how informed are these approaches by the experience of service users and citizens?


The desire to quantify and measure social impact only grows larger. Efforts are being pushed along by the impact investing and purpose-led business movements that are growing worldwide. Whilst useful at a macro level, there is evidence these efforts can overreach and limit the scope for collaboration and continuous improvement at the delivery level. Can standardisation and harmonisation of measures better enable like-for-like comparison of alternative strategies to enhance decision making? What tools and data are needed to support more comprehensive approaches to value-for-money assessments in contracting decisions? Can different motives for measuring outcomes be reconciled across diverse sectors, policy domains and levels of decision-making, and should they be? Does measurement weaken the voices of citizens and service users?

Public procurement accounts for 12% of GDP in OECD countries. In the UK, procurement accounts for £100bn (47%) of local authority spending. Leveraging these resources to the greatest social and economic effect is crucial for the well-being of suppliers and communities and in ensuring a robust recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the regulatory and policy frameworks which can support sound procurement decision making? What does a culture of good market development, thoughtful contract award, and effective contract management look like, and how can it be promoted? In what ways is social value considered and monitored in procurement processes, including during contract delivery? What has procuring during COVID-19 taught us?

All over the world, there is a ‘geography of discontent’, with local and regional patterns of economic and social deprivation contributing to division and discord. In the UK, regional disparities are greater than in any other major developed economy. Yet governments all over the world have promised to ‘build back better’ after COVID-19. How might public, private and civil society bodies in towns, cities and regions work together to achieve this? Actors in these sectors hold mutual responsibilities towards each other and a collective responsibility towards citizens. This gives them a shared purpose, which can be made explicit and used to help the organisations with a stake in the success of a place to organise their efforts relative to one another. Such local purpose-oriented networks hold promise in incorporating a broader set of voices into decisions about a place, co-ordinating the efforts of a diverse set of organisations, and informing ongoing adaptation in the light of evolving circumstances. How might a network of actors in a place co-ordinate their activity around a common purpose?

Many public services around the world are delivered by private sector or civil society organisations under contract with governments. Given the distinction between purchasing and providing services that this market mechanism brings about, contracts are needed, but this can lead to fragmentation. For people using services, that often means duplicative, superficial interactions with multiple services which are not joined up. Fixing this requires coordination – or perhaps even integration – of a range of support across multiple organisations. Conventional bilateral contracting approaches are not well suited to this. Practice is moving towards more relational, and more multilateral, forms of contracting. Where are the examples of such networks working effectively? How can a practice of measuring outcomes foster a learning environment for adaptive improvement? How can effort engage with the strengths and agency of citizens?

Additional opportunities to share your work

Beyond formal conference proceedings, there are two other opportunities to share your work with our audience.

Engaging with Evidence series

The Engaging with Evidence series provides an additional opportunity to explore and expand upon topics that could not be accommodated in the main conference agenda. Please contact Andreea Anastasiu if you have any questions about this series. 

Academic Journal Special Issue

Over the years, academics participating in the SOC have had their work featured in several journal special issues including in the Journal of Economic Policy Reform (2019); the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (2020); Public Money & Management (2020); and the Journal of Urban Affairs (2020). 

This year, those submitting abstracts for original research may also wish to submit their work to an upcoming special issue in the International Public Management Journal. The hope of this issue is to build theoretical and empirical understandings of what over a decade of experimentation in outcomes-based contracting means for public management reform. The expected deadline for full manuscript submissions is 30 September 2021. 

Please find full details on the special issue and submission introductions here and contact Dr Clare FitzGerald with any questions.

Further information

For any questions regarding academic papers submissions, please contact Dr Eleanor Carter, Research Director at the GO Lab. 

To discuss your proposals for practice-focused presentations, please contact Andreea Anastasiu, Policy and Engagement Manager at the GO Lab.