20 December 2011

Half full

It's nearly the end of the year, so time to sum up my view of where policymaking in general and Social Policy Bonds in particular are headed. The latter is easy to summarise: I have had a few expressions of intellectual interest in Social Policy Bonds, but the bond concept remains untested. More generally though, I think the concept of payment for results is gradually gaining ground in government circles. This is generally a positive trend, though I have reservations. Chief amongst these is that the 'results' targeted are rarely outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. More often they are outputs of existing organisations, as measured by criteria intrinsic to that organisation. So results targeted include things like 'savings made' or (increasingly) number of employees sacked. In recent history it has usually been the case that well-meaning intentions to improve social and environmental outcomes founder on the solid, immovable rocks of existing institutions and their ways of doing things.

But I remain optimistic that something like Social Policy Bonds will eventually be issued. One reason is that society and the environment are becoming increasingly complex, so that existing methods are becoming useless. We only need to look at climate change for a spectacular and costly example of failure to manage human affairs. The other reason is that the existing system's failings are becoming obvious to all. Our economic system has been gamed to benefit the one percent - or 0.1 percent - and our political systems throw up uninspiring candidates for whom the concerns of most of us and the environment appear well down the list of things to worry about. It's clear that the current system cannot continue. I remain hopeful that someone, somewhere, in the public or private sector, will issue Social Policy Bonds for a worthwhile goal, and enable the concept to be tested, discussed, refined and eventually deployed to solve some of the world's urgent social and environmental problems.