Are Governments ‘Paying for Failure’ With Social Impact Bonds?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Three years ago, New York City launched an ambitious and unprecedented social policy experiment at its jail on Rikers Island. Thousands of teenage inmates began receiving group therapy aimed at improving their moral reasoning by addressing their beliefs and thought processes in a step-by-step treatment. The goal was to reduce the number of repeat offenses once the inmates were released. Academic studies using the method, known as moral reconation therapy, had reported success in reducing recidivism. Still, no one had ever scaled up these studies to accommodate anything like the 9,240 inmates the four-year Rikers Island program aimed to serve. This month, the program is coming to an abrupt end.

The reason for the progam’s demise has to do with another feature of the experiment: It was financed entirely with a $9.6 million loan from Goldman Sachs. New York City was to pay the investment firm back if the repeat offense rate went down by at least 10 percent over four years. In June, a preliminary report showed the program not only was missing its recidivism target, it had no impact on the rate altogether. Goldman Sachs moved swiftly and took a contract option to cancel the program one year early. The first social impact bond program in the United States has officially failed.

“Everyone went into this understanding what they were getting into,” says David Butler, a senior adviser at MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization that managed the treatment program at Rikers. “These things are risks. Just because something works in one environment doesn’t mean it will work somewhere else.”

Unpredictable as they are, programs like the one at Rikers are not going away. In fact, these attempts to link altruistic policy goals with the pursuit of private profit have been gaining steam as the latest promising innovation in public finance. The mere announcement of the Rikers project back in 2012 was a catalyst for action in dozens of other jurisdictions. Cash-strapped governments quickly became sold on the concept that they can use private money from investors for preventive social programs — money the government will have to pay back only if the programs produce the desired measurable outcomes. In 2013 alone, 28 state and local governments applied to the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard’s Social Impact Bond Technical Assistance Lab to receive help in developing such programs.

Media outlets have often touted the innovative financing tool with few notes about the complicated nature of the projects. Last year on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan support is famously elusive these days, a $300 million proposal pushed by President Obama to allocate federal funds for social impact bond projects in the states managed to attract proponents on both sides of the aisle.

But as the enthusiasm for social impact bonds has grown, so has skepticism about the concept of partnering with the private sector to accomplish social goals. Last spring, a congressional hearing on the subject ended on a negative note as critics questioned the complicated structure of program contracts between governments, investors and the various private operators involved. “I don’t get this at all,” said Maine independent Sen. Angus King, squinting with disbelief. “I think this is an admission that government isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. This strikes me as a fancy way of contracting out.”

Source: Governing Magazine (link opens in a new window)

Environment, Impact Assessment
failure, impact bonds, public policy