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The call for papers is now closed. A conference agenda will be published in June.

Date: 1-4th September 2020
Location: Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford
Hosted by the Government Outcomes Lab at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government

Update April 2020: Due to the global coronavirus outbreak, we are planning to make the conference a virtual convening. We are monitoring the situation closely and will keep you informed. In response to the current situation, we have added an additional discussion theme centred around emergency responses and government outcomes to the call for papers and presentations. 

The fifth edition of the international conference on cross-sector partnerships, outcomes-based approaches, and impact bonds will once again bring together the leading researchers, policymakers and practitioners in the field of social outcomes. 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. 

In the quest for improved social outcomes, public funding across the world continues to support partnerships with private and non-profit organisations. There are a wide variety of approaches to structuring these partnerships, all attempting in different ways to find the perfect balance between autonomy for the people delivering the work, and accountability to those funding it. Increasingly, the focus is being turned towards the end outcomes of the planned work – but this can mean anything from a loose articulation of desired end goals, right through to paying only on the basis of demonstrable impact. In some parts of the world, public-private partnership mechanisms are being applied to the provision of basic social services. In others, the emphasis is put on acute social problems, with collaboration between multiple stakeholders and with communities themselves increasingly favoured.  

Given this plurality of approaches, it is imperative to reflect on the evidence emerging from current practice and empirically informed research on their impact and effectiveness. 

  • What are the underlying mechanisms by which these approaches are expected to improve social outcomes for people and populations? 
  • How are different approaches evolving as they are being adapted and implemented in new geographies and policy areas? 
  • Can any of these tools fundamentally reform the way state and non-state actors work together to address social problems? 
  • What is the broader applicability of the learning emerging from this field, and how can we ensure this learning is shared effectively within the global community?

We are delighted to invite the submission of both original research abstracts and proposals for practice-focused presentations. Submissions may be made by:

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

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.   

We want to ensure that research addresses effectively the most pressing matters in the field, and that governments and other practitioners are engaged with researchers across disciplines and sectors to share knowledge, exchange ideas and create solutions. As such we encourage all those interested in presenting their research findings or practice-based reflections to consider how to best share their insights in a way that is engaging both for practitioner and academic audiences.

Core themes

Building on the core themes that emerged at last year’s conference, the conference will explore a range of topics that cut across multiple disciplines and areas of expertise.

March 2020 update: In light of the global coronavirus outbreak, we have added an additional theme centred around emergency responses and government outcomes. We are seeking insights from practitioners, technical experts and academics who have experience or questions to share from previous emergency or disaster responses. We are interested in how emergency responses may be different within and among various types of organisations. We are also interested in emerging insights as to whether any aspects of outcomes-based contracts may help or hinder emergency responses.  

Emergency responses and government outcomes

  • What are the flexibilities within outcomes-based contracts that can be employed to respond swiftly to an emergency of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic? What are the limitations? 
  • What can the situation created by the coronavirus outbreak tell us about the ability of outcomes-based approaches to work effectively in highly dynamic or fragile scenarios?
  • How can the parties involved in outcomes-focused collaborations innovate and adapt in emergency situations? To what extent can the processes in place be flexed to support frontline staff responding to emergencies?
  • How can evaluators and researchers adapt their evaluation strategies and activities and/or design specifically to take into account emergency situations?
  • What can we learn from other contexts about how to respond and adapt in outcomes-focused collaborations?

What are we learning about data sharing within organisations, between parties, or externally during or following an emergency?

Contracting and governance: how partnerships are structured and overseen

  • What are the different ways to organise and manage cross-sector relationships, and which are most effective?
  • What are the different choices governments are faced with when structuring their relationship with external organisations?
  • What are the relative merits of different funding mechanisms to help catalyse closer cross-sector partnerships that deliver impact at scale, such as results-based finance, impact bonds, and grants?
  • Do we need to change the way we think about public procurement to enable outcomes-focused cross-sector partnerships to be set up and managed effectively?

Impact bonds and outcomes funds: making sense of the evidence and emerging practice in an ever-evolving landscape

  • As more impact bonds are being developed across the world, how has this mechanism evolved over the decade since the first impact bond was launched in the UK? 
  • What are the drivers and logics for the introduction of this tool in new geographies? 
  • What are the unique features and challenges of implementing outcomes-based approaches in the Global South? 
  • How are outcomes funds and other ‘market-building’ devices being used to catalyse the application of outcomes-based approaches at scale? 

Data and transparency: the use of data and evidence to inform decision making in cross-sector partnerships for social impact

  • How is data used in cross-sector partnerships?
  • What are the tensions surrounding data and evidence use? Which actors hold power to shape and influence the production and use of data? How can we make best use of existing data and evidence to improve the implementation of outcomes-based approaches?
  • When have transparency and data sharing been used to improve policy and practice aimed at improving social outcomes - and what are the benefits, challenges and limitations around data transparency?
  • Can a focus on data and performance management help consolidate a cross-organisation culture of learning and evidence-based decision-making?  

Measurement and metrics: measuring what matters

  • Standardised social impact metrics are overwhelmingly focused on outputs and activities of an intervention, rather than measuring for outcomes. Should this changed, and, if so, how can that change be brought about?
  • When it comes to measuring what matters, what are some promising approaches from emerging practice?
  • Standardisation of measures is crucial in helping build evidence by allowing comparisons across time, place or units of observations. Can this be reconciled with the need to ensure that outcome measurement captures what is most important to the intended beneficiaries of a social intervention (i.e. outcomes measurement for whom), and is harmonisation of measures a good alternative if the answer is no?
  • Should measurement be linked to targets, or only be applied for post-hoc learning? 

Collaboration and communities: how people work together towards better social outcomes

  • Attempts to improve collaboration within and between government and non-government agencies have a long history. What is the latest practice and how does it build on earlier efforts?
  • How are the voices of people on the receiving end of services incorporated into the way partnerships are structured, and how are they in engaged in design and delivery?
  • How can the agency of individuals, and the power of small self-organised community groups, be harnessed towards improved social outcomes?
  • How and when should efforts be made to incentivise collaboration over competition?

For those wishing to present at the conference, please submit a 500-word abstract by Monday 18th May 2020

For academic papers, we recommend that abstracts take the following structure:

  1. Central question and main issue analysed in the paper
  2. Methodology and sources of data/information used for the analysis
  3. Main findings 
  4. Research and policy implications 

For practice-focused presentations, we recommend that abstracts take the following structure:

  1. Overview of the project or approach to be discussed in the presentation and how it relates to one or more of the core conference themes
  2. Main reflections and insights from the work to date
  3. Research, policy and / or practical implications

Authors of successful papers will be informed within a month of the closing date for abstract submissions. The provisional programme of the conference will be announced in June 2020.


As SOC20 is now going to be a virtual conference there will be no cost. We will be announcing the latest updates in our newsletter - sign up here. Stay tuned for details in the coming week. 

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 Engagement Manager at the GO Lab.