Farewell from Nigel Ball, Chief Development Officer

07 Dec Farewell from Nigel Ball, Chief Development Officer

It is with a mixture of pride and sadness that I announce I am moving on from West London Zone. Since I joined almost three years ago, we have achieved an ambition that many thought was unreachable.

I joined WLZ from running the Teach First Innovation Unit, when WLZ was still little more than an idea. But it was an idea which struck a chord. At Teach First, I had been working with multiple education charities, all of whom were excellent and highly inspiring but none of whom, I felt, was singly able to tackle the complex and inter-connected problems holding back so many young people in communities up and down the country. Teach First’s focus on ‘areas of greatest need’ had got me thinking about how powerful it would be to concentrate the efforts of such a diverse set of charities on the unique problems in one particular community. And WLZ presented an opportunity to do just that, even if it was still just an idea, and even though I knew it would be extremely hard to achieve in practice.

The thing that gave me the opportunity to get involved in making the idea a reality was the ambition to finance the work through a Social Impact Bond (SIB). I had been nurturing an intellectual interest in SIBs for quite some time, because they seemed like an elegant solution to a problem that has long dogged the charity sector – namely, that priorities tend to be aligned with funders, rather than beneficiaries. SIBs, I thought, while unproven, might enable the interests of funders and beneficiaries to be aligned.

When I joined WLZ, most SIBs that had been set up in the UK were central government funded. Ours was to be locally funded and to add to the challenge, WLZ’s SIB was to have multiple commissioners paying for the outcomes, because multiple commissioners had an interest in helping at-risk children to grow up well and flourish in adulthood. The idea of getting multiple charities to co-ordinate their efforts, let alone multiple commissioners, was clearly too daunting for some to even contemplate. I can remember one conversation in particular, soon after I started at WLZ, where I was told we were extremely ‘brave’ for what we were trying to achieve – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

The fact we have managed it is not something I can take the credit for. Without Danny Kruger’s big vision, without our bold early funders (particularly John Lyon’s Charity and some key anonymous individuals), without our forward-looking first set of commissioners, and of course without an incredibly talented and hard-working team of colleagues, none of it would have happened – every single element has been essential to our success. Although if any single factor deserved a special mention, it would be our CEO Louisa’s ceaseless perseverance and inexhaustible energy, which filtered through the whole team.

But I am proud to have led the design and launch of our SIB. SIBs hold much promise but their benefits are unproven. At West London Zone, I believe our SIB has enabled three things to happen.

The first is that our partner councils, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, have been able to try out a new way of delivering services to an under-supported group, without having to take all the risk of doing so – because our social investors, Bridges Fund Management, and underwriters, City Bridge Trust, carry some of the risk of it not working.

The second is that we have channelled multiple streams of funding into a single stream flowing to the children that could most benefit from extra support but don’t normally get it. To our knowledge, we’re the first SIB that has built in contributions from schools and local philanthropists as well as the Local Authority (and I should credit the Big Lottery Fund’s Commissioning Better Outcomes Fund for boldly backing this new structure with top-up money).

The third – and perhaps most important – is that under this funding structure we cannot let children down. The mechanism through which we receive payment means we have to report our results with individual named children. We can’t easily give up on children who aren’t making progress, and leave someone else in some part of the public care system to pick up the pieces. This is gruelling, but we should be proud of it, and I hope that in time, our results provide evidence that we are preventing children reaching the lowest limits of our social safety net, and becoming marginalised as adults.

And it is because I have seen these benefits of West London Zone’s SIB that I have taken the brave decision to move on to the Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab) at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. To me, it seems that the debate around SIBs to date has been one of believers versus sceptics. Either we have to believe SIBs are the answer, or we must say they are all hype – the emperor’s new clothes. The GO Lab, a partnership with UK Government, is there to provide more hard evidence, so that we can have a more mature debate that distinguishes good SIBs from bad. As you can read in my blog on the GO Lab website, the GO Lab will seek to understand the contribution of SIBs within a wider suite of commissioning and contracting tools available to those who arrange public services. The GO Lab will investigate outcomes-based commissioning more generally, to discover how it can unlock more innovation, collaboration and prevention to tackle complex social problems, just as I believe WLZ has done. My role will be to locate and elevate cutting-edge practice, supporting the team of researchers – but also to bring more commissioners in Local Government, the NHS, and others on this journey with us. As with West London Zone, it is a compelling aim and will be very hard. And that’s why I want to do it.

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