Who do you need in government to get a SIB off the ground?

The social impact bonds (SIBs) so far agreed have displayed striking similarities in how they have been resourced. They have, at a minimum, featured two key roles: (1) the worker and (2) the senior champion. After speaking to most of the people responsible for SIBs agreed across the globe, it appears to me that these two roles are essential to driving SIB development all the way to signing a contract. These two roles are by no means sufficient to achieve a SIB contract, but they are necessary.

The worker

Somebody needs to take responsibility for doing the bulk of the work within the commissioning body. This involves briefing and negotiating with internal stakeholders, acting as secretariat for decision-making committees, collecting and analysing data analysis and liaising with external stakeholders. Imagine this person researching, writing and then physically chasing up decision documents and moving them from one desk to the next. They need the flexibility to work in this way, requiring different processes and a broader scope than those in established roles, and they need to be enough of a risk-taker to keep fighting the barriers to change. They need to enjoy the exploration of something unknown and be naturally inclined to include both internal and external stakeholders on the journey. They cannot do this work on top of their normal day job. People who have performed this role say:

  • “I almost created my own job”
  • “I was never part of the wider set-up – I was never a civil servant within the hierarchy.”
  • “I’m a bit of a square peg in a round hole”

The focus of developing a SIB is to get everyone to agree. Working towards an agreement necessarily involves a range of stakeholders as the project progresses in an iterative manner. Sometimes external service delivery providers, data custodians, other government agencies and investors have been involved in discussions before a government decision has been sought to work on development. Sometimes the government decision is made first and then work with stakeholders sets the direction of the development process. A SIB won’t happen because one person worked very hard, alone at their desk for a long time, they need to be saying, “I’m a networker – I connect with people and get things done”.

All successful SIBs have been driven by people who are passionate about the project, who won’t give up on finding solutions to new problems on a daily basis “it was about keeping the energy going – you can’t recreate that in someone that is not interested”. Several SIB development projects have stalled within public agencies due to the nominated SIB producer rationally declaring this mountain too high to climb.

The senior champion

Doing the legwork on a project that breaks new ground every day is too hard a task if the ‘worker’ also has to justify why they are creating work for everyone by pushing through change. A senior champion is crucial to validate the project and its resourcing, as well as compelling the necessary people at all levels across government to participate in discussions. Interviewees said things like, “My boss allowing me to have time to work on it was absolutely key” or “Having them state this was their pet project opened doors.” The senior champion is also responsible for political negotiation and positioning.

Informal connections may lead to successful formal ones

Vital SIB partnerships have been started in unlikely places. These include parties, running groups and corridors. This reflects the cross-sectoral nature of SIBs and that at the moment, they are built by alliances between first-movers, rather than through established communication channels.

Why are SIBs so difficult for government agencies to develop?

SIBs are difficult because they involve change. Public service agencies aren’t set up to change often – they are structured to maintain huge, vital service systems and every public servant is a dedicated cog in this machinery. SIBs ask for a whole lot of changes at once. The first is the measurement of outcomes and the valuation of those outcomes, such that payment may be made on the basis of measurement. That’s pretty new for most public agencies delivering services. SIBs also involve procurement practices that don’t specify ‘how’ services should be delivered, which can be contrary to traditional risk and quality management practices. Social impact bonds require new ways of thinking and decisions from public service units responsible for legal, finance, procurement, service design and data. And then all the external stakeholders are required to change the way they’ve been thinking and operating too!

The Harvard SIB Lab

The Harvard SIB Lab is a clever model because it recognises the difficulty public agencies have with resourcing SIB development. The Lab rewards successful applicants with someone dedicated to working on the project. This person may or may not take on the role of owner of the work, depending on the person and situation.

Department of Work and Pensions Innovation Fund

This suite of programs, which includes several SIBs, was developed differently to other SIBs so far. An allocation of £30m was made for an innovation fund to explore early intervention programs with young people. The next step was to think about how to distribute this funding and a decision made to tender for ten programs financed by social investment, some of which are SIBs. Public servants involved in this project seem to have been able to do so within their existing roles.

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