Last week, Jim Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Andrea Phillips of Goldman Sachs shared lessons from their investment in a social impact bond to reduce recidivism at Riker’s Island. In less than 850 words, they publicly admitted to the failure of the program to achieve its desired outcomes and announced its discontinuance. Yet they also deemed the effort a success in that it validated the underlying premises of social impact bonds, the financing mechanism behind the program.
Can you really fail and succeed at the same time? Yes, they did and we all need to do more of it publicly. In fact I found their work and their blog to be a huge contribution to the social change field. Why? By closing the first social impact bond in the U.S. they made real the idea that we can focus on lives changed, not simply people served. And their blog is helping us redefine success and establish learning as a critical public good.
Let’s be clear – Jim and Andrea publicly said, “It didn’t work,” and how often do you see that? Admitting to failure is rare and often uncomfortable. Further, people don’t share enough about the lessons learned from failure — or even the lessons learned from success for that matter. But public admission of failure can be liberating. It can also validate the fact that social change involves risk-taking. We have to fail or we’re not trying hard enough. It also creates ‘teachable moments’ demanding that we reflect on what happened and ‘make meaning’ of what worked and didn’t work. Their ‘failure’ accomplished both of these goals. By telling people what they did, how they failed, and what they learned from that failure, they’ve helped redefine what success means when you are trying to solve really hard problems.
ESTABLISHING LEARNING AS A PUBLIC GOOD
Jim and Andrea’s emphasis on learning is critical. Every funder and grantee should feel an obligation to share, in real-time, what they’re learning from their investments, warts and all. I call this ‘open sourcing social change’ and I think of those learnings as a 21st century ‘public good’. We cannot afford to constantly reinvent the wheel, or for learning to be contingent on who is in our circles. Everyone working on issues like improving education, connecting people to jobs, or keeping young people out of the prison system should have access to the best thinking available. Jim and Andrea have taken important steps to move the field in that direction.
LEARNING FOR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT
Finally, their blog reminded me that each effort to change the status quo, whether it be a social impact bond or a Promise Neighborhood, should be thought of as a contribution to a much bigger continuous improvement process from which all of us can learn and improve. At a conference in London this week, a participant put it well: “The new always comes dressed up in the old.” We need to do much more to consider how what we are doing builds upon what has been done before. In short, it should not be enough for staff at a philanthropic or government institution to do a cursory scan of the literature before designing a new initiative. Instead, we should be able to articulate what has come before, what was learned, and how what we are designing harnesses the learning to improve upon previous efforts. Right now, that’s difficult to do because the information required is generally hard to access. We need to change that.
As they say in poker parlance, we need to ‘see’ Jim and Andrea’s bet on learning and ‘raise it’ if we are going to build a New Urban Practice that gets dramatically better results for low income people faster.