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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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity