Did you get what you came for? Realising social impact bond objectives

shopping basketIn a previous blog, Do SIBs Work?, I listed 22 objectives that have been given for pursuing SIBs as they have been announced around the world. Now I want to examine the achievability (is that even a word) of each one. Some objectives are achieved just by signing the contract to deliver a SIB, but some objectives rest on longer-term outcomes and these are the more interesting. But the conditions of achieving outcomes need to be built into SIBs from the start. If we’re after transparency, then we need to publish terms and results. If we want to shift funding to prevention, there must be a plan to continue funding the SIB preventative service after the SIB is over.

Better programs and better results for the people who participate in them
1. Improving results for beneficiaries by focusing on outcomes rather than outputs

I’d say this is the objective most likely to be achieved. Peterborough doesn’t have its results in, but word on the ground is that providers feel the focus on outcomes has made them deliver better services and participants enjoy the holistic and seamless approach. This may be an objective more easily achieved where payments are based on a single outcome, like Peterborough or Essex, than multiple outcomes like the DWP Innovation Pilots.

2. Improve the likelihood of delivering real and sustainable solutions to important social challenges

For this to happen you need a funding to be sustained – there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk so far of what happens after the SIB, but if the solutions are to be sustained, they’re going to need some continuity of funding. I think the services we’re seeing are real solutions, but we can’t think that solving a problem means it goes away. Solving social problems mean they go away for some of the people for some or all of the time – bettering a situation is noble – thinking you’re going to eradicate is is naive.

3. Making effective interventions available to far more people in need than the number that can be reached through traditional state contracts and philanthropy

This will be achieved as long as SIBs are delivering additional services to those who would otherwise have received little to nothing.

4. Harnessing the innovation capacity of both investors and service providers for publicly funded services

We’re unlikely to get any innovation if the same providers are delivering the same proven programmes – the objective will be achieved if there is room to improve and real changes are made on the ground. Peterborough is certainly delivering on this- not in any of the components of service for participants, but in the consistent and collaborative way they are delivered, so that the impact on their lives is real and sustained.

5. Adding discipline to measuring outcomes for government programs because there is an upfront agreement on how to measure success

This depends how much discipline you had about measuring outcomes before and how much political will there is to improve measurement in government – this may be more applicable to an Australian context where increased use of evidence-based policy is very much on the agenda – Peterborough has certainly introduced a measurement system that was then used in a number of other pilots, but it looks like the new Ministry of Justice probation reforms will revert to the less informative binary measure as it’s perceived as more favourable to Ministers and the public.

6. Improving the evidence base for social services, by mandating measurement and publication of outcomes

Only achieved if the results of the SIB are published along with full evaluations of the programmes that achieved them, ideally including follow-up measurement after the SIB is over. 

7. Accelerating the adoption and implementation of promising programs

Dependent on the programme chosen – was it promising? In all SIBs so far I would say yes.

8. Accelerating the expansion of evidence-based programs delivered by effective nonprofits

This is very much the objective that seems to have been focussed on in the US. You’d have to look at the expansion of programmes like Multi-Systemic Therapy (Essex SIB) and Moral Reconation Therapy (New York SIB) to see how the inclusion of the programmes in these SIBs impacted their expansion rates.

A social finance market
9. Unlocking funds to tackle social issues

We’ve certainly seen new funds committed by Government, and the involvement of an investor like Goldman Sachs suggests new funds (unless it comes from their corporate social responsibility budget).

10. Growing the social finance and social business sector

SIBs have certainly grown interest in the social finance sector and have become a bit of a poster-child. This has occurred at the same time as rapid growth in the social finance and social business sector, so I think it’s fair to assume an element of causal relationship.

11. Providing new financial instruments to harness private investment for the benefit of the community

This is achieved the minute the contract is signed. But in all honesty, if investors don’t receive their capital back, there won’t be any more and the instrument will no longer be viable.

12. Enabling investors to achieve financial returns and social impact

SIBs will either achieve both financial returns and social impact or neither, so this objective is pretty achievable. Some might argue that the measurement of impact is a little on the weak side for some SIBs, but if the measurement system is assumed to be a good indicator of social impact, then this is highly achievable.

13. Increasing funding for prevention and early intervention programs in a sustainable manner

This objective will only be achieved if funding is sustained, but we should all be asking the question of commissioners “What happens when your SIB is finished?”

14. Improving accountability and transparency for publicly funded services

Depends on publication of terms and results – some current SIBs are achieving this better than others – if it’s an objective stated at the start, the public should expect and demand publication of information

15. Allowing governments to accept and measure new ideas from external providers, only paying for the ones that deliver

This is difficult and unlikely to be achieved in the current market. Government’s ability to accept new ideas from the market is often limited by procurement rules, but the DWP innovation SIBs certainly allow 10 new ideas to be tested and compared. Only paying for the ones that deliver? This occurs in the UK, but not so much in Australia where investors stand to receive between 50% and 75% of their funds if services deliver no results at all.

16. Saving Government money

There is no doubt that there is a multitude of benefits to government from being involved in a SIB, but money in the hand is one of the least achievable, unless the services that will experience reduced demand are spot-purchased (i.e. purchased as units of service in direct response to demand). Steve Goldberg defines this as an accounting problem, rather than a savings problem, but governments are constrained within their accounting systems and are thus unlikely to cut anyone’s budget to pay for a SIB. The only SIB we’ve seen where savings resulting from a SIB intervention are used to repay investors is the Essex SIB , although these savings will not cover the cost of the SIB.

17. Lowering risk for government

Financial risk may be lower, but due to media attention, the reputational risk of programme failure is extraordinarily high. As a result, the due diligence undertaken by governments mitigates most of the risks of SIBs before they enter.

18. Savings can be recaptured and reinvested into a permanent funding stream for the program

Highly unlikely – see ‘Saving Government money’ above.

Service providers
19. Increasing accessibility of payment by results contracts

This is a UK objective – in the US many not-for-profits are on these kinds of contracts and in Australia there is a dominance of not-for-profits delivering government contracts for social services, despite there being few payment by results contracts. In the UK, it seems that this objective has been achieved for the SIBs introduced, but the test of whether it opens up broader payment by results contracts will be the upcoming rehabilitation reforms.

20. Giving nonprofit providers a committed, long-term funding stream not subject to budget cuts

This is achieved when contracts are signed and seems a significant contribution of SIBs for providers.

21. Aligning the interests of beneficiaries, nonprofit service providers, private investors, and governments

The SIB contract development process certainly achieves this. The only risk is that some voices around the table are louder than others and some interests are therefore maligned, but that consideration would hold over the development of any contracting arrangement.

22. Facilitated coordination with organisations working on overlapping problems

We’ve seen this demonstrated very well in Peterborough, but it will depend on the delivery structure. In New South Wales, Australia, the government has contracted for results directly with UnitingCare Burnside, a service provider, so they are not mandated to work with other delivery organisations.

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