As a guest of the Fall Institute, I’ve just attended a conference: Social Finance and Innovation for Adult Basic Learning: Opportunities and Challenges. It was quite the bravest conference I’ve ever been to and I don’t say that lightly – it put literacy practitioners, business people, investors and policy-makers together for 3 days in St John in New Brunswick, Canada and then linked with various other government officials in different countries.
Why brave? Well, reflecting on the long journey home, I defined this as two types of bravery: pragmatic and intellectual. On the pragmatic bravery we heard perspectives from top officials in three different governments – England, America and Canada – on approaches to change and social finance. All by video links, all in the same session with the aim of a joint discussion on approaches. And just to add to the tension, all in a sparkling new facility in New Brunswick Community College, in fact, the first time it was ever used. It worked, after some initial hiccups, such as stalling the US speaker with unintended amazing rap effects every time the delayed UK dialled in and a dollop of addition frisson due to time zones. Now that’s what I call a brave conference schedule.
The fascinating discussion highlighted that all three countries are grappling with the same problems: how to work differently to finance social needs, adopt new long-term, outcomes-based approaches and all in the context of the global recession and reduced public expenditure. In the words of the Canadian Government Director General, “local organisations are best suited to deal with local issues.” Both the US and Canadian Governments have looked in depth at the UK pilot Social Impact Bond (SIB) in Peterborough Prison and used this to develop their thinking. On the second day the Deputy Mayor of New York spoke about the SIB in Rikers and the package of finance, support and guarantees that kick start the actions to free up the long-term savings from acting differently. So not as an alternative to state funding, but as a way of inputting resources upfront to enable savings from making long-term changes to flow into the system.
As for the intellectual bravery, there have been many different conferences in the UK discussing social financing, but to my knowledge this is the first one that has been completely in the context of adult learning. A room full of literacy practitioners, managers, infrastructure organisations, national agencies, policy-makers and business people from across Canada all thinking about how to do things differently. This was about so much more than social financing: it was about how we change behaviours and actions to focus on the outcomes needed for local communities and how to do this in the ways and language that resonates with businesses and investors. One speaker reminded delegates that “outmanoeuvring the status quo” challenges everyone as we fight against a default of risk aversion. It is a change of thinking and moving the discourse from “grants” to “deals”, and the ability to show the outcomes of our work and the returns on investment. It felt like an enormous strategic leap towards a shared emerging new conceptualisation of our work.
I shared our Social Return on Investment research and discussed the positioning around wider outcomes and impact. In Canada, as in England, this is a journey about thinking differently about the outcomes of our work. For both countries it is about having the confidence and the permission to take risks on delivery. We discovered some striking similarities in bureaucracies and a shared need to trust local people to know what works. We may call it freedoms and flexibilities here, but wherever it is, it has to be more than just rhetoric and needs to represent a true freeing from bureaucratic strangleholds whilst maintaining accountability to funders and communities. I also shared the wealth of new ways of working that are developing rapidly in England, such as the City Deals, Community budgets, all of which provide potential for long-term changes and ways of operating for adult learning and skills. I was delighted when one delegate told me after my session, “I get it now, how to think about outcomes and impact.”
Everyone left the conference incredibly tired, but with minds buzzing and whirring and thinking about how to take this learning forward into our day jobs. For me, reflecting on what this means for NIACE, it is about how we move forward and ensure at a national level that adult learning and skills are integral to the current cross-government debates on outcomes and social finance. It is also about ensuring that we build the capacity with adult learning providers to ensure that we have the right language to be able to show the wider outcomes of our work and then use this to argue for the long-term impact of adult learning as an initial intervention. But equally critical is ensuring that the most vulnerable learners and the smaller community organisations that are often most effective at meeting their needs, aren’t left behind. All crucial aspects of our current focus on impact.