Goldman Sachs gets into social impact bonds - but what are they?

Ryan Shorthouse of the Social Market Foundation explains the reasoning behind social impact bonds.

Fiscal retrenchment is catalysing radical thinking among policymakers about how to get better public services for less money. Social impact bonds (SIBs) are currently fashionable in policy debates as a possible means of financing interventions. With SIBs, social investors fund a particular service, and only get a return if the intervention improves outcomes which will lead to reduced government expenditure in the long-term. In the current environment, Government wants to pay investors only out of identifiable savings. And an idea that started here in the UK has now gone global. Just last week Goldman Sachs announced that it was spending $9.6 million on a 4-year programme aimed at reducing recidivism of offenders at Rikers Island prison in New York.

SIBs are potentially an ingenious way of getting more bang for taxpayer bucks at a time when public money is short. They are a vehicle for encouraging innovation in public service delivery because they devolve the financial risk to investors and organisations who can affect outcomes on the ground. At a recent SMF conference, Iain Duncan Smith MP said:

It could mean a change to the whole way that Government and private sector work together to solve social problems.

The first ever SIB launched in 2010 and funds work to reduce re-offending among offenders released from Peterborough Prison. Philanthropic investors will receive a return on their investment if the interventions funded achieve at least a 10 per cent reduction in reoffending each year, or at least 7.5 per cent across all three years. Other schemes are now emerging: in Manchester, for example, the Council is sourcing funds from social investors to provide intensive support for eight young people with challenging circumstances to live in foster care rather than in residential care.

SIBs are an important part of the funding jigsaw. But they are not the magic bullet for all public services. Social investment – where investors invest in the work of charities and expect a return – is still small: in 2010, £190m was sourced for social investment compared to £3.6bn in philanthropic grant funding and £55.3bn in wider bank lending. And SIBs only constitute a small part of all social investment. The small scale is mainly down to a lack of decent investable propositions. There are at least three big reasons for this.

First, because SIBs are embryonic market information about the likely risk and reward in different service areas is poor. Investors are jumping into the unknown. Little is known about how effective new interventions could be at, say, cutting re-offending levels, so investors don’t have much to go on in assessing the investment proposition. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the length of time it may take for outcomes to be observed, especially for early intervention programmes. The Government has helped set up Big Society Capital which it hopes will co-invest with private investors to send a signal to them and mitigate their risks by accepting lower interest rates or taking on the junior part of a debt. It is also hoped that Big Society Capital will fund new products that support impact measurement.

Second, there is a risk that investors are not paid appropriately. In most public services it is difficult for government to identify whether outcomes have improved, let alone to attribute those improvements to the work of the provider. If re-conviction rates fall after an intervention how can government distinguish between its being the result of the intervention or perhaps a change in the local policing strategy? An up-tick in re-offending could be the consequence of high local unemployment, or a statistical blip, rather than ineffective interventions. Correctly attributing outcomes to their cause is notoriously difficult. But without resolving that challenge both government and investors will remain reluctant to embark on large scale SIBs.

Third, even where outcomes are measurable, quantifying the financial benefits for taxpayers is tough. Improved employment outcomes for unemployed people or better GCSE results for children in care may be good in themselves, but quantifying the public savings is no simple task. All the more so if those savings are spread across a number of government departments, making coordination difficult.

The potential for SIBs and other payment by results schemes to revolutionise public service delivery lies in the incentives they create for providers to innovate. But there are many hurdles for government to overcome if this approach is to enter the mainstream. Improving measurement and data collection, working across departmental silos, and simply taking a punt on financially risky ventures to find out what works may all be necessary steps. In time SIBs could save government money. But the first steps on the road will be costly. And right now that’s not something that government wants to hear.

A guard at the entrance of Rikers Island in 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change