Monday, 25 October 2010

Social Impact Bonds: Enough Social Impact?

The "Social Investment Bank" is an interesting experiment that's taken more than three years to bring to pilot stage. Its vision is to leverage money in dormant bank accounts ("unclaimed assets") to help the non-profit sector (aka "the third sector") "to grow and meet its goal of supporting marginalised communities in a way that neither the state nor the private sector can." To leverage the unclaimed funds, the SIB will raise money from 'non-government' investors by issuing "social impact bonds" - each being "a contract between a public sector body and Social Impact Bond investors, in which the former commits to pay for an improved social outcome."

For example, the pilot project "will prepare around 3,000 short term prisoners for their lives post-release [from Peterborough prison] and will work with them to prevent a return to a life of crime... If ... re-offending drops by more than 7.5 per cent within six years, investors receive a payment [from the Ministry of Justice] representing a proportion of the cost of re-offending. The payment will increase based on the reduction in re-offending with the total cost of the project capped at £8m. Social Finance [expects to raise £5m] from social investors that will be used to pay for the services in the prison and outside in the community."

There is a bit more complexity in the way it is explained here and in the Guardian, but perhaps you get the drift.

I'm not sure that I share the reported view of "sceptics" that this is "about city slickers making a fast buck," though the board and executives have some roots in the City and are offering "commercial investors, and high net worth individuals... greater financial return as the social return improves." This is "a risky business", as the Guardian article notes, so it's probably a bit hot for you and me anyway, even on such small numbers and moving at such a glacial pace. Public sector figures are notoriously, shall we say, inexact. And, by definition, we're talking about an area where the public sector body concerned doesn't have a good grip on the situation now, and obviously will be starved of funds to monitor closely in future (otherwise, there will be duplication in resources).

If I were a sceptic, however, I might prefer to consider this initiative as consistent with New Labour's reputation for public sector financial engineering, albeit gratefully endorsed by the Coalition as a "Big Society" initiative that might partially compensate for public funding cuts, at least in the justice budget. A sceptic might also consider that the focus on areas of apparent public policy failure begs certain questions that I'm sure have already been answered, or will be during the pilot:
  1. Is it purely for lack of funds that the government doesn't grasp the nettle and reform the public policy areas in question? In other words: If the bonds don't sell, will no one implement the proposed fixes?
  2. Does this proposal merely allow the public sector to outsource its accountability for difficult policy areas to a special purpose vehicle?
  3. Does this proposal encourage public sector bodies to dump more of their work into the "too hard" basket and hope it will be picked up by taxpayers or private investors directly? Note the irony, for instance, in the quote from "Paddy Scriven, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, [who] has welcomed the scheme but warned those running it not to "cherry-pick" the least difficult offenders and leave the hardline cases to the prison and probation services." Isn't it his members' job to reduce recidivism?
  4. If the bonds for one type of project perform well for investors, will the government ensure the policy lessons are learned and reap the savings, or allow repeat projects/returns?
Personally, I am left with two concerns, which are really two sides of the same coin, as it were:

1. The nature and scale of the risks to capital may be hugely under-estimated, giving rise to complaints and compensation awards that are underwritten by the taxpayer; and

2. The nature and scale of the risks to capital may be hugely over-estimated, giving rise to windfall gains to investors, again, underwritten by the taxpayer.

Yes, like all investment banks, this one comes with a taxpayer guarantee. Which means we're all on the hook for this in the end, whichever way it goes.

Don't get me wrong. It's fantastic that we are getting excited about making improvements and saving costs in these very difficult areas of public policy. And we should never lose sight of the root causes of apparently intractable social problems, nor cease in trying to resolve them. I just don't see the need for all the chicanery around getting the liability for fixing them off the public books when the liability sits there anyway.

Worse still, it distracts our great regulatory minds from the real challenge of how to finance growth in the 'real economy' while the government and our ailing banks attempt to rebuild their balance sheets. To that end, rather than tinkering with yet another public sector investment bank, surely the government will achieve greater lasting social impact by clearing the way for genuinely private, social funding initiatives aimed at creditworthy people and small businesses, as well as alternative energy and other socially productive projects.

It took about 6 months to actually plan and launch Zopa, for example, and it's members generated about £100 million in the time it's taken to get the SIB to pilot phase. There are at least a dozen other examples out there, which have either launched or are in development, some of whom are no doubt engaged in needless technical analysis - as Zopa was - because the authorities lack the time or other resources to publish helpful guidance on how such platforms ought to be structured.

Image from The Tool Factory blog.
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