It has many attractions in terms of not requiring government capital funding up front, no risks because payment is only by results and it funds activity in the private or 'third' sector. But the suspicion is that the figures will be 'fudged' and this article confirms that the big downside of this big new idea is indeed how everything needs to be measured. Just when we thought the target culture that Tony Blair was so keen on could be dismantled, it seems it has to reappear as a method of measuring the outputs as part of this big new idea.
By nature I will admit to being a pessimist. I have an over-powering sense of foreboding about our future as a public service in an environment of spending cuts, contestability, value for money exercises and straightforward privatisation. But I am also attracted to the whole Social Impact Bond idea as a method of doing things that are not being done at the moment, as at HMP Peterborough. However, I'm not stupid or that naive to think it's going to stop there though. The idea is clearly going to take hold and inevitably move into areas of our core work. Now at least one person has commented on this blog that the essential ethos of the probation service might be safer and possibly have a brighter future, if it moved into the third sector.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but would we be better embracing all this PbR and Social Impact Bond stuff? We could carry on doing what all public bodies do in response to targets and fiddle the new outcome figures? In my area, we've been doing some 'creative accounting' on the numbers of clients getting employment for ages. As the Guardian article points out:-
"Targets failed nearly everywhere partly because the most important objectives – education, health and so on – are not really susceptible to narrow measurement. So services had to make do with something less precise, which was bound to distort. But they also failed because of the phenomenon known as Goodhart's Law, named after a former Bank of England director: any measure used to control people – and all targets are that – are bound to be inaccurate.
It doesn't matter how inefficient the service is, staff and managers always know how to manipulate the definitions so that their numbers look better. That is why the Labour government spent huge sums checking, auditing, redefining and systematising their controls. Every time they did so, the rules became more complex, more expensive and less connected to reality."
So even though we all know targets don't work, are a huge distraction and distort an organisations operation, we will need them to measure outputs with this great new idea. We're all independent Trusts now and fiddling the figures is precisely what all the third sector bodies will be doing anyway. The government won't mind if we do the same, don't get found out and everyone can claim success. Oh dear, it seems I'm even more cynical than I thought.