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Social investment: the missing link


26 Jan 2015

It was really exciting to see a room packed with 400+ people eager to discuss social investment (SI) at a conference last Tuesday. The debate has really moved on from basic discussions on ‘what SIBs (social impact bonds) are’ and pros and cons to a much more nuanced discussion of the value of SI and new opportunities the sector is presenting.

Comments from Helen Stephenson from the Department for Education on the potential of SI to test and scale evidence-based interventions in the early years and beyond was music to EIF ears. It was also interesting to hear how SI can be a way of driving joint commissioning and collaboration through a focus on common outcomes, rather than just structures or policy.

Yet a few things still seem to need to shift up a gear for SIBs to move to the next level. Firstly, still more involvement and drive bottom-up from local commissioners. We need to bridge the gap between the doers locally and the investors and intermediaries, government departments, consultancies and other firms who want to make this happen.

SIBs don’t have to be too hard. Yes, there are some barriers; not least the relatively untested nature of SI for public services, risk aversion, lack of time and head space to consider opportunities, and concerns about perverse incentives. It’s natural to expect things to take a while to catch on. But I think some of us feel that perhaps the market might have been expected to develop a bit quicker than it has.

So what needs to happen now? Well, the basics of enabling commissioning agencies to think in a way that makes SI possible are pretty much the same as for intelligent commissioning. The first step for anyone working as or with local commissioners is to focus on outcomes. If agencies routinely planned and commissioned services based on clearly specified target cohorts, defined long-term outcomes and short-term indicators on the path to those, and linked up how measures of activity relate to these, then the path to SI thinking would be partly set.

If local agencies more routinely collected, analysed, and used data to understand predictors of poor outcomes, and drew from evidence about what works to help stop these – another piece of the jigsaw falls into place. If we then add to the mix the ability to collect and use data to prove that particular interventions are the cause of a change in outcome, rather than anything else that might have happened anyway – the counterfactual – then further parts of the picture are completed.

This is the work EIF is doing with some of our Pioneering Places where we are helping them develop much clearer ‘theories of change’ and ‘logic models’ for early intervention, and understand evidence-based interventions that might help them deliver the outcomes they want. Local authorities (LA), police and crime commissioners, clinical commissioning groups and others collect huge amounts of data on population needs and outcomes, and service outputs. This data isn’t always used well, or at all (I’ll never forget the LA visit where I asked about data and was referred to the analyst in a room down the hall who proudly told me about all the types of info he collected and analysed, but when I asked him what people did with it told me sadly no one had ever asked for it!).

There are so many opportunities to better draw local data together in ways that lead to smarter outcomes-based commissioning – and from there, to considering more opportunities for social investment. At EIF we will do all we can to work alongside commissioners to enable more thinking in this way.