Monthly Archives: March 2016

Heading off to the workhouse

At this time in the MPP year our students are organising their placements with governments, think tanks and NGOs around the world. This is a key element of the MPP, providing an opportunity to bring together all of the class work and skills development, and to be in a specific policy environment. 

To get a sense of what a placement can entail have a read of Lizzie Presser’s experience as part of the 2014 – 2015 class, working within the Cabinet Office’s Social Investment team – it was a great placement and one that has continuing impacts on Lizzie’s work as a journalist (her profile for the Guardian is here).

Before coming to Cambridge on the MPP, I had been researching the birth of social impact bonds, a new government financing tool that can encourage commissioners to target and measure specified outcomes in service delivery and pay providers according to how well they meet them. Its proponents claim it can help shift public service delivery to value the outputs of social programmes over the inputs, thus moving towards stronger evidence-based policy. Its opponents say it risks redirecting services away from the most vulnerable in society: Providers that are paid based on results may avoid targeting those who are hardest to help.

After a few years in the UK, the model hopped the Atlantic to my home state of New York as a tool to decrease recidivism at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. In recent years, it has expanded to areas like prenatal care and pre-k education, too. I chose to go to Cambridge in part because I wanted to get a sense of how social impact bonds were working in the country that started testing them first, and the work placement programme suggested I might have that opportunity.

The Social Investment and Finance Team (SIFT) in the UK’s Cabinet Office wasn’t on the list of promised slots, but with a little legwork, the MPP directors brought them on board. I spent March of 2015 in their offices, as their small team coached me through how to evaluate the feasibility of a social impact bond. The Ministry of Defence and NHS England had both expressed interest in a social impact bond that could help improve mental health services for veterans, so SIFT staff guided me through identifying the greatest needs to determining potential partners and funders to calculating a financing rubric.

During the three-month placement, I had invaluable access to the key people behind the growth of social impact bonds – policy directors and economists in the government office and a variety of experts across the country. I also had the opportunity to help the SIFT team think through how to employ social impact bonds in mental health care delivery, an area where the bonds have yet to be tested. And throughout the process, I had the chance to see firsthand the challenges of developing evidence-based policy when data is spare, evidence is thin, and service delivery is disparate.

These are the kinds of challenges we could touch on in class at Cambridge through examining datasets and portfolios of evidence in the lead up to policymaking. They’re also the kinds of challenges I look at in my work in journalism, reporting on social policy. Through Cambridge, I found the work placement programme offered a much-needed lens to the mix. The three-month stint behind the scenes of government policymaking not only introduced me to the obstacles of delivering ‘evidence-based’ policy, but it let me in on how policymakers manage them when they arise. Since leaving, my time with the Cabinet Office continues to shape my work on policy, sharpening my ability to analyze the power of evidence and to identify where policymakers take leaps, and to what end.