* This section is a summary of the article by Julie Rijpens, Marie J. Bouchard, Emilien Gruet, Gabriel Salathé-Beaulieu. 2020. Social Impact Bonds: promises against the reality. What does the recent scientific literature tell us? Article submitted to CIRIEC International’s working group on impact measurement.
Social impact bonds (SIBs) and other similar pay-for-performance funding schemes are currently gathering a lot of attention from policy-makers in Canada, especially at the federal level (see Impact Canada: What’s Next and article by the Canadian Press). These initiatives usually come from good intentions: the desire to test innovative solutions to face what is described in the public policy field as wicked problems. Yet, review of the existing literature has not yet generated evidence of these instruments delivering better outcomes with a greater efficiency compared to traditional funding mechanisms. Far from being the fruit of evidence-based policy, the increased popularity of this approach is rather symptomatic of an ongoing ideological shift. This section summarizes the available evidence in the literature thus casting a new light on the issue.
What are SIBs?
A social impact bond is a financial tool that permits to raise private funding to finance social services, as illustrated in the figure below.
Schematization of a Social Impact Bond
In the reference model, the state or a public authority commissions an intermediary to raise private capital to finance the delivery of social services. The intermediary raises private capital from private investors (such as a bank, financial intermediary or philanthropic foundation) and uses this capital to finance the social service provider(s), namely a nonprofit organization or a social enterprise. The social programs generally consist of specific interventions in diverse fields, ranging from the socio-professional integration of long-term unemployed people into the labor market, to the reduction of prisoner recidivism, health services for vulnerable people, and the handling of homelessness. The transaction is formalized in a contract that mentions the reference period as well as the target outcomes and performance indicators to be reached within the period. The achievement of the outcomes is assessed by a third party—an independent assessor—and if the outcomes are effectively achieved within the defined period, the state or public authority reimburses the capital plus interests to the intermediary, who will then reimburse the private investor(s). Theoretically, if the outcomes are not achieved, the state or public authority doesn’t have to reimburse and investors do not recover their investment, thereby transferring the financial risks of non-delivery of outcomes to the private investor(s) (Le Pendeven et al. 2015; Arena et al. 2016).
Do SIBs work?
The article by Rijpens et al. (2020) has found the following evidence in the literature:
Impact measurement is crucial to the model but can be difficult to implement
For reasons that were already covered in a previous section (see Proving impact: causality, attribution and contribution), rigorous impact measurement, where a link of causality is attributed to a specific intervention, requires technical designs to control for various factors. Such task is not necessarily impossible, but difficult to implement and may involve significant costs (see (Joyce et al., 2019) for guidance on how to do it). Besides, the design of an impact measurement protocol may create unintended consequences that could be detrimental to the project (see Potential negative impacts of impact measurement).
Four questions are especially difficult to deal with while talking about impact assessment in the context of Social Impact Bonds:
- The first difficulty lies in determining measurable outcomes over time (Albertson et al. 2018b; Fraser et al. 2018; Fox and Morris 2019) in order to ascertain whether or not the initial objectives have been achieved. What outcomes should be taken into account? How should we measure or assess them? What indicators should be developed? How might we accurately identify the attainment and cause of complex social outcomes over time? (Edmiston and Nicholls 2018). Measurement of social outcomes remains a significant challenge, as clearly highlighted in Fox and Morris’ review (2019) of SIB experiences.
- The second issue concerns the difficulty to establish and understand causality between the actions of one program and the measured/observed impact (Arena et al. 2016; Sinclair et al. 2019). How might we attribute the accomplishment of outcomes to policy inputs and/or to the contribution of a particular intervention or program (Roy et al. 2017)? How can we isolate the contribution of one specific program in the effects that are observed, for example, at the level of one territory where other actors are implementing different actions?
- The third question concerns temporality. SIBs are organized on a short-term basis, the outcomes and effects of the program being measured during the first few years of the project, although some effects can occur a few years later (Albertson et al. 2018a). Under these conditions, how can one make sure that the effects will be maintained over time, and/or take into consideration longer-term effects?
- The fourth issue concerns the process for defining indicators and assessing impact. Who should be involved and how should we organize the impact assessment process? Scognamiglio et al. (2019) point to the importance of ensuring that all potential stakeholders develop the necessary skills to understand and report on financial and social results.
These difficulties lead to various risks (also covered in the section Potential negative impacts of impact measurement):
- Isomorphism, in other words, the fact that all the actors will behave and do what those considered to be the best are doing, as this tends to standardize the delivery of social services and reduces the diversity of logics and actions in the field. Albertson et al. (2018b) also highlight that the potential for the indicator’s distortion to represent “success” (see below) can lead to the delivery process converging, over time, “on the most efficient way of producing desirable, commodifiable statistics rather than the originally desired outcome” (p. 24), which likewise contributes to isomorphism.
- Mission drift, namely by producing the expected impact or by prioritizing those outcomes that can be more readily measured at the expense of those most in need (Roy et al. 2017), hence straying from one’s original objectives. This also compromises the capacity for social innovation as the social providers focus on reaching the expected outcomes.
- Misguided measurement (Sinclair et al. 2019) by using indicators or performance measurements that do not reflect or render optimally the outcomes. According to Ronicle et al., “investors need metrics that they can easily measure and assess for achievement risk, and service providers need metrics that they can evidence” (Ronicle et al. 2016, p. v). Further, the identification of (social) outcomes and the measure of success are “as much political as technical processes” (Sinclair et al. 2019, p. 11). Indeed, an approach based on the achievement of target outcomes often appears to be “unresponsive to service-users’ demands and changing circumstances,” especially as “users are rarely involved in defining what issues services should address and how they should operate, as indeed they are excluded from designing SIBs” (Roy et al. 2017, p. 9).
- Supporting those projects that already demonstrated their utility or that are more easily assessable, with outcomes that are easier to capture or whose impact is measurable in the short term, to the detriment of projects that would need more qualitative assessments or that have a more transformative purpose (Fox and Albertson 2011; Arena et al. 2016).
- As already highlighted in the early SIBs, the “creaming” to meet those target groups’ needs that are the easiest to meet and to thereby show better outcomes, especially if outcomes or the target population are not carefully specified in a SIB contract (Fraser et al. 2018). Albertson et al. (2018b) refer to “the possibility of ‘gaming’ the system (Lowe and Wilson, 2015), for example, in so-called ‘creaming’ or ‘cherry-picking’, whereby providers might select ‘easy’ cases to work with, and ‘parking’, where they ignore ‘hard’ cases (Carter and Whitworth, 2015)” (p. 24).
- Giving support to those organizations that are more visible and equipped to demonstrate their impact to the detriment of those that are equally if not more successful but that don’t have the required resources to systematically assess and communicate on their outcomes and impact (Arvidson and Lyon 2014; Arena et al. 2016).
- Increased financial and managerial pressure on social service providers, because of the focus on performance and the close relationship between performance evaluation and payment, which can lead to disputes between different parties (Fraser et al. 2020). This can also encourage social providers to channel scarce resources away from their core business of implementing social programs and toward assessing and communicating impact (Albertson et al. 2018b), implying a distortion of service delivery (Albertson et al. 2018c).
Social Impact Bonds are not necessarily more effective than conventional settings
It is not possible yet, on the basis of existing empirical evidence, to demonstrate that SIBs fulfil their promises (Carter and FitzGerald 2018, Tan et al. 2019). Williams (2018, p. 2) also mentions “discrepancies between promise and reality as evidenced by early projects.”
In particular, there is little evidence, so far, that SIB settings are more innovative or produce better outcomes than conventionally funded services (Tan et al. 2015). In fact, there is a paucity of evaluations and those that exist are not of a high standard (Albertson et al. 2018b; Fox and Morris 2019). Scholars have likewise found limited empirical evidence that similar funding tools, such as payment-by-results or pay-for-performance settings, provide better outcomes compared to more conventional models when applied to public services (Lagarde et al. 2013; Edmiston and Nicholls 2018; Tan et al. 2019). Finally, as mentioned by Fraser et al. (2018), the issue has been explored in different fields, especially in health (Campbell et al., 2007; Campbell et al., 2009; Kristensen et al. 2013, 2014) and in education (Podgursky and Springer 2007).
SIB settings lead to mixed results and do not foster long-lasting effects
As stated by several authors (National Audit Office 2015, Albertson et al. 2018b, Edmiston and Nicholls 2018, Fox and Morris 2019), when there is evidence available, SIBs or performance-related contracts show mixed or ambivalent success. Williams (2018) even highlights “a sense of uncertainty and even scepticism among practitioners themselves regarding [the] future prospects [of SIB market]” (p. 10).
Especially, when positive effects are demonstrated in the short-term, these effects are difficult to maintain once the contract comes to an end. Even if it could be proven that an SIB directly contributed to future cost savings, any such effect would likely depend upon sustaining at least some of the work funded by the SIB rather than withdrawing it as soon as immediate contracted targets are met (Edmiston and Nicholls 2018). Some empirical evidence showed that SIBs or similar settings (here, pay-for-performance settings) demonstrated little ability to maintain the positive effects over the long term after the contract has ended.
Social Impact Bonds do not foster highly innovative or experimental social programs
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, it appears from analyses of existing SIBs that they rarely finance and/or foster highly innovative and risky programs and interventions: “SIB experiences rarely finance a new program whose innovation stands in creating an integrated supply chain of service providers with different core competencies or in opening collaborative opportunities between public and private professionals, besides the intervention strategy” (Arena et al. 2016, p. 934). Rather, they have been used so far “to expand existing programmes or fund those previously proven to be successful” (Roy et al. 2017, p. 6).
While SIBs are theoretically designed to support flexible services and projects, these projects must already be evidence-based as well (Maier et al. 2018). Indeed, as stated by Albertson et al. (2018b), the SIB incentive structure is designed to pay only for success, making it difficult to assume the potential of failure required by innovation and therefore experimentation, so much that “it is likely that innovation may be curtailed to those interventions for which an effective metric is available and which are already ‘tried and tested’” (p. 28). The SIB settings therefore foster and support projects and initiatives that already demonstrated their utility and for which there is demonstrable evidence of impact (Albertson et al. 2018b). To reduce uncertainty and therefore risk for the investors, SIB designers tend to make sure that the outcomes and impact are already measurable, or that the project already demonstrated its positive impact, which leaves little space for innovation and experimentation (Albertson et al. 2018b). The areas of application for SIBs therefore tend to focus on “social problems where it is relatively feasible to identify the effects of an intervention on individuals or on a clearly delineated group” (Maier and Meyer 2017, p. 1). Furthermore, the management by objectives and indicators, the presence of private social investment (Edmiston and Nicholls 2018), the difficulty of keeping SIBs both outcome-oriented and flexible at the same time (Maier et al. 2018) are other elements put forward to explain the fact that SIBs essentially contribute to reduce the social service providers’ flexibility and capacity to innovate. Apparently, the innovation lies more in the financial setting itself than in the projects and initiatives this financial setting is willing to support (Tan et al. 2019).
Social Impact Bonds do not necessarily transfer risks or reduce costs
SIBs and similar settings do not necessarily meet their promise of “transferring the innovation risk of promising programmes or the implementation risk of proven programmes to private investors in a way that is cost-effective for the public purse” (Maier et al. 2018).
In their study, Arena et al. (2016) observe that only few SIBs transfer the entire risk of the intervention to private investors. Indeed, in many cases, philanthropic foundations or the state provide some kind of guarantee to back the invested private capital (Arena et al. 2016). This element results from the fact that in its current form, SIB-financed initiatives are unlikely to be attractive to investors interested in financial returns (Maier et al. 2018), therefore challenging “the hope to engage mainstream investors in the social impact investment market” (Arena et al. 2016, p. 934). Albertson et al. (2018a) conclude that
the evidence in the UK suggests that private sector providers are averse to taking on financial and reputational risks as part of PbR contracts. Where the government is forced to offer financial incentives to the private sector to take on such increased risk, public cost reductions and economic efficiency will be more difficult to realise. (p. 111)
Sinclair et al. (2019) resume arguments from other authors to highlight the fact that SIBs can include increased costs to governments (Katz et al. 2018), especially because of guarantees. Indeed, significant public and/or philanthropic subsidies have been required to guarantee SIBs and convince private investors who may be reluctant to finance innovative and risky social interventions (Pasi 2014, quoted by Sinclair et al. 2019). Warner (2017, quoted by Sinclair et al. 2019) even mentions cases where the scale of public protection against risk was considerable, with some financiers offered guarantees of returns of up to 50% of their investment. This observation undermines the claim that SIBs “enable governments to only pay for demonstrated outcomes” (Tan et al. 2019, p. 5). The cost of “de-risking” is therefore never mentioned (Maier et al. 2018, p. 1344); yet, it is expected that investors will require compensation for taking on risk.
SIB mechanisms do not necessarily align with nonprofit organisations’ needs
SIBs represent an opportunity for nonprofit social service providers to possibly provide stable funding as well as freedom to innovate and personalize services according to clients’ needs (Fraser et al. 2018; Maier et al. 2018). Albertson et al. (2018c) also observe that there is some evidence that PbR and especially SIBs can improve service quality. Yet, the alignment with nonprofit organizations’ needs is questioned in many articles, some authors even raising the risk that “with wider concerns about the marketisation and financialisation of the “social” […], there is the perception that the existence of SIBs, and the skewing of the market for finance and for services that may follow from them, could bring negative consequences to the structure, independence and operation of the social sector.” (Clifford and Jung 2016, p. 165)
As highlighted by Williams (2018), a tension appears between private investors’ needs and expectations and the realities of public bodies and social service providers:
SIBs are ultimately the product of an urban financial elite who are far removed in both physical and social space from the problems they are attempting to solve and who employ tools, logics, and assumptions based on risk, scale, and standardization that are not easily translated into the local spaces and contexts of urban social problems. (Williams 2018, p. 11)
This element contributes to explain the needs’ misalignment.
Some authors also cast doubts on the actual demand for SIBs among third sector organizations because of the skills (especially financial skills) and management systems they require (Sinclair et al. 2019), and the costs associated to establish and manage these systems, notably to collect robust evidence required for impact assessment (Roy et al. 2017). Edmiston et al. (2018) note that
[i]n certain contexts, this created a substantial additional administrative burden for service providers. As a result, some third sector stakeholders felt that the degree of micro-management built into the SIB was actually reducing their flexibility to autonomously pursue their social mission. Some felt that the resources and time that went into these additional forms of performance management and measurement could be better spent on front-line services. (Edmiston and Nicholls 2018, p. 65)
There is no evidence, therefore, to suggest that SIBs facilitate performance monitoring and decrease reporting requirements, on the contrary (Roy et al. 2017).
As a consequence, and referring to the current situation, Edmiston and Nicholls (2018, p. 73) observe that SIBs have principally been awarded to larger third sector organizations considered to be “investment-ready.” This element contributes to increase the selection bias between small and big nonprofit service providers, as the biggest ones are certainly more equipped (in terms of time, infrastructures and human resources) to enter in this type of setting and dedicate the required resources, especially in the first stages of design. It also contributes to increase the competition between the nonprofit service providers, including between their projects, as well as between the public actors that might take part in such settings.
Finally, a risk that is often mentioned is the possibility that SIBs contribute to shift existing spending and interventions from “traditional” mechanisms (i.e., non-refundable grants) to these new types of settings. Indeed, philanthropic funders may switch from non-refundable grants to SIBs or similar settings, thereby incentivizing existing funders or providers to use these new financial settings. In this context, SIBs wouldn’t be a source of additional funding for nonprofit organizations.
Social impact bonds and similar settings involve high transaction costs and show governance issues
Across the various publications on SIBs and similar financial settings, authors raise some practical issues in designing and implementing this type of financial setting, especially regarding transaction costs and governance.
SIBs are technically difficult to establish and commission, they require complex contractual relationships between different actors, and they involve considerable transaction costs (Albertson et al. 2018c; Fraser et al. 2018; Neyland 2018; Tan et al. 2019). Because SIBs involve a diversity of stakeholders and imply multi-party contracts, they call for contractual safeguards, which incur additional transaction costs (Pandey et al. 2018).
SIB settings involve multistakeholder governance and the organization of interactions among several counterparties, among others, financial intermediaries, commissioners, social service providers, investors and public authorities. Even if it is worth underlining the relevance of aligning interests, goals and expectations between SIBs’ counterparts (Scognamiglio et al. 2019), the multiple stakeholder collaboration raises issues linked to the difficulty of aligning these various interests (Sinclair et al. 2019) and involves a greater complexity than a more traditional model of intervention given the implicit and explicit contractual relationships (Pandey et al. 2018). Maier and Meyer (2017, p. 7) second that observation, arguing that “proponents should avoid the illusion that all these interests can be easily aligned without displacing or neglecting some of them.” They contend that public agencies and nonprofit social service providers risk deviating from their own objectives or from their voters’/beneficiaries’ expectations/needs (mission drift) when striving to align the interests of the various stakeholders (Maier and Meyer 2017).
SIB mechanisms and similar financial tools do not foster coherence in public policy
Many authors argue that SIB settings render it difficult for policymakers to build coherent and stable public policies, for two main reasons:
- The design of such settings involves a negotiation phase with the involved parties, which could lead to a change in the initial objectives, focus or methodology of the policymakers’ vision.
- Such settings tend to support isolated projects or initiatives, which do not contribute to coherence and stability in public policy.
Maier et al. (2018, p. 1335) conclude that SIBs have “politically contested effects on welfare systems.” They also observed that other scholars have likewise presented SIBs as non-neutral instruments due to the possible influence exerted by the private social investors and social finance intermediaries over service operations in terms of maximizing efficiency, effectiveness and equitability (Maier et al. 2018). That said, the motivations and characteristics of these actors, and thus their influence, are variable (Edmiston and Nicholls 2018). Roy et al. (2017) and Sinclair et al. (2019), for example, examine the political implications of such settings, putting forward the shift that fundamentally alters the regime of welfare provision by rearranging responsibilities and rewards among governments, private investors and social service providers (Maier and Meyer 2017; Edmiston and Nicholls 2018).
So why would anyone support SIBs?
This section, focusing on weaknesses or lack of evidence related to SIBs, paints an unattractive portrait of this type of funding mechanism. In the light of the available literature, it therefore appears prudent to apply a precautionary principle and remain especially cautious with this tool. Yet, this does not mean that everything about this type of mechanisms should be discarded.
As mentioned by Maier et al. (2018) and other scholars (Clifford and Jung 2016; Albertson et al. 2018a; Fraser et al. 2020), some of the elements of the SIB approach could be useful for improving welfare provision and could thus be incorporated into simpler institutional arrangements. For example, more flexibility and professional discretion could be given to service providers; the idea of evidence-based policy is attractive and can contribute to improve the quality of social service provision; and the multi-stakeholder collaboration that SIBs imply could have the potential for improving social policies, by improving knowledge flows about both promising, as well as proven, social innovations (Maier et al. 2018). Clifford and Jung (2016) also add that:
By bringing together a variety of non-governmental stakeholders and alternative forms of resources, SIBs allow for the development of social interventions in areas where a government agency does not have the funding for, or is not prepared to take the risk of, doing so. (p. 173)
These benefits or opportunities warrant further exploration of various avenues that would permit to improve this type of funding mechanism and make sure that they produce the expected positive effects. Among the areas for improvement, we mention:
- including the beneficiaries in the design of the SIB settings; thinking about how to make the effects sustained over the long term (through other types of incentives for example);
- including assessment mechanisms that would take into account the processual dimension (and not only outcome indicators);
- and documenting SIB scenarios in specific and various contexts.
But until these improvements are made, it appears safer to restrain the use of SIBs in Canada and Quebec to pilot projects or even not to engage with them at all. TIESS’ experience with social impact measurement as well as evidence from the literature teach us that claims of SIBs’ superior performance have been greatly exaggerated, while the risks it poses in terms of financializing the nonprofit sector seem to be underestimated. This stance should not be understood as a blind resistance to change or preference for bureaucracies, but rather as an invitation to develop models of intervention in the social sector that takes into account concepts such as trust, proximity, subsidiarity, democracy and that challenges the status quo by addressing the issue of rising inequalities and concentration of wealth by giving the power back to communities.
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Want to know more?
- Reportage sur les contrats à impact social. 2020. L’ESS est-elle encore sociale? Vox Pop – Arte (in French)