GO Labs Q&A

GO Labs Q&A April

Abha Thorat-Shah, our Executive Director of Social Finance, was recently selected to be part of the GO Lab Fellows of Practice. The Government Outcomes Lab, at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford works with Governments and related organisations to enhance policy and practice towards better outcomes for communities. We caught up with them to discuss their work in outcomes funds and more- read below.

How did the GO Lab get started?

For decades, the UK has been pioneering innovative approaches in public service provision – partnering with the private and not-for-profit sectors and developing new tools to tackle social problems. The Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab) was born when the government recognised a need to build the capacity of local public sector leaders to manage these new tools. They also wanted to inform policymaking and future implementation with evidence of what was and wasn’t working. So, they set out to establish a world class, independent centre of expertise.

At the same time, a new department at the University of Oxford, the Blavatnik School of Government, held a similar vision. They wanted to use world-class research to advise practitioners and policymakers in governments globally – and so address some of the most challenging social problems across the world. A partnership with the UK government was an excellent fit.

The GO Lab are a team of leading academic researchers and professionals. We work alongside government to ensure that our research asks the most important questions and makes a difference on the ground. We strengthen the capacity of government leaders and develop regional partnerships so these tools can be used most effectively.


What would you say is the main issue with the way that governments currently tackle social problems?

In 2018, in our report ‘Building the Tools for Public Services to Secure Better Outcomes’, we looked into the perennial issues faced by the UK government, ways to overcome them and the outcomes that were needed. We found that departments and their budgets often work in silos, which can lead to fragmented services and poor communication. There is often a short term political and financial focus, which can lead to reactive services that just respond to crisis. And governments are often risk averse, which means that there is difficulty creating change.

We’re exploring the potential of social impact bonds and other outcomes-based approaches (with their focus on achieving targets rather than inputting activities), to overcome some of these challenges by encouraging collaboration, prevention and innovation across public services. We’re asking questions: Can cross-sector partnerships help reform public services? How can impact bonds be used as a tool to build capacity in governments? Can their learning be applied in other contexts? Can they disrupt the system?

The first social impact bond (SIB), established in 2010 to reduce reoffending in a prison in Peterborough, was a success. From that, the appetite for SIBs began to grow and many more were initiated across the UK – see our interactive map for every impact bond to date.

We believe that the insights from our research on impact bonds can provide some helpful ways to think about deeper challenges that governments face worldwide. There’s a growing recognition of the need to work effectively across sectors to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we believe there is much to be learned from the use of impact bonds and other outcomes-based approaches. As our research agenda expands, we’ll look at the challenges that governments face in low and middle income countries. We realise they may vary significantly and are highly context dependent. It may be that governments don’t have the right systems in place, aren’t able to deliver services efficiently, lack the relevant data to understand the needs of citizens or are without the resources to support them. Whatever shape governments take, they will always play a part in building the ecosystem – whether they deliver services inhouse, or steward partnerships with others to deliver services.

How would you describe the ethos of the GO Lab?

Collaboration! At the GO Lab, our team seeks to bridge the gap between academia and practice. Our researchers explore the evidence on outcomes approaches and are supported by our Scientific Advisory Board, which offers expertise. While this academic work is crucial to underpin to our work, we can’t achieve success with research alone. We work with implementers, decision makers and policymakers across the world.

Our aim is to support the creation of public knowledge, and all our digital information resources are free to access and share. We also speak at conferences, organise events and webinars, and build direct partnerships. Our Fellows of Practice are a vital part of this as they act as our eyes and ears on the ground.

A good example of our ethos in practice is our Social Outcomes Conference each September. Last year we had 224 delegates from organisations as diverse as the Ministry of Economy in Chile, development experts from Japan, and academics from the Harvard Kennedy School. The conference provides a vibrant platform of scholars, policymakers and practitioners to exchange ideas and to challenge and learn from each other. This can result in new opportunities to co-design solutions, and to forge new partnerships across sectors, contexts and many different countries. Drawing together these ‘two worlds’ is integral to our mission.


What led to the selection of Abha from the British Asian Trust as a Fellow of Practice?

We appoint a small number of Fellows of Practice each year and look for people with a range of experience across the public, private, and social sector. This year, they include international development leaders who have championed innovative models of funding social programmes in low- and middle-income countries, policy makers who are championing evidence-based approaches to policy development, and practitioners with decades of experience in helping improve public services. We see our Fellows as ‘critical friends’, informing us, challenging us, and making sure our research asks the right questions. You can ‘Meet the Fellows’ in this news article.

We look not only for outstanding professional expertise from our Fellows, but also a close alignment with our values and mission. Abha is critically minded, thoughtful and passionate about her work, and her boundless energy and determination is inspiring. We value her commitment to work with the GO Lab and key organisations in South Asia. She wants to understand what lessons can be learned from the implementation of impact bonds in the region and to foster openness and transparency in the field. Abha has vast knowledge of outcomes approaches in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond; we are excited to learn from her.

What is the global agenda of the GO Lab?

In the last four years, we’ve built a strong understanding of impact bonds, their potential, their diversity and also their pitfalls. We believe that they’re a valuable tool in the toolkit.

We want to build a wider understanding of outcomes-based approaches and we’re doing this through partnering with regional institutions, and building the capacity of governments through educational programmes.

As our work takes on a more international focus, we’re keen to draw on different perspectives and expertise, as well as understanding of the context of different countries and regions. We want to promote the things that have worked and learn from the things that have not. There is a demand for trusted sources of knowledge and data. Being an impartial research group, we’re determined to build trust among practitioners. The UK is a leader in this space, so we play a critical role in convening a learning community, maintaining our ethos as both inclusive and outward looking.

What has been your impact been over the last 10 years?

We’ve actually only been around for four years, but we’ve achieved a huge amount. In our 2018 policy report ‘Building the Tools for Public Services to Secure Better Outcomes: collaboration, prevention and innovation’, we put together a comprehensive analysis of the use of impact bonds across the UK to date. This provided a springboard for high-level conversations, such as our invitation to present our insights to the British Prime Minister, and for our ongoing work with Her Majesty’s Treasury. We’re now looking to build on the initial insights to improve understanding of how impact bonds are being used and the social impact they have.

We are the Government’s learning partners for the £80m Life Chances Fund, a pot of money that supports disadvantaged people across the country through impact bond projects. We’ve offered hands-on support through regular events, webinars, advice sessions and resources for practitioners. This work unlocked opportunities for research, and in March 2019 we published a report ‘Are we Rallying Together?’ exploring the trends towards collaboration across agencies and local communities. Our academic researchers have published their work in prestigious journals and our work has been featured in The Guardian, Civil Service World, Apolitical, Pioneers Post and the LSE Politics Blog.

Early on we recognised that to make sense of impact bonds and other outcomes approaches it was not enough to look at the practice in the UK, we needed to cast the net wider. We also felt that as new places were starting to experiment with these approaches, they should be able to access learning from the UK experience. So we sought to build partnerships and create space for international exchange of learning. The culmination of this was the global knowledge platform that we launched in the Summer of 2019, funded by DFID and UBS Optimus Foundation. With our partners, we created the ‘go to’ place for learning on impact bonds. This provides cutting edge research and the latest data on impact bonds around the world, introductory and technical guidance, and a directory where people can connect with other practitioners in this space and build networks around the world.

Our annual Social Outcomes Conference shows just how international we have become, with delegates joining from the EU, US, Canada, Japan, South Africa, Brazil and beyond. We continue to make space for new voices.

We have begun to shift the conversation to look at the bigger picture of outcomes-based approaches, not just social impact bonds. We’re keen to deepen the understanding of the potential of impact bonds to make a difference; not just as a financing tool but as a catalyst for public sector reform, a way to disrupt the system, encouraging cross-sector collaboration and more.

8 April 2020