Invisible Heart: A Good Start But Time to Ask Some Deeper Questions

By Benjamin Miller
The Invisible Heart is a documentary about the promise and pitfalls of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs). While the film may serve as a helpful introduction to those unfamiliar with SIBs, and raises the right issues, it does little to address those issues. To do that, the film would have to situate SIBs in the much longer story of how private sector thinking has influenced the public and nonprofit sector more broadly.

The Promise: A Revolution in Social Services

The film sets a high bar, opening with Sir Ronald Cohen, chair of the G8 Social Impact Investment Taskforce, proclaiming that social impact bonds will bring nothing less than a revolution to the way we address social problems. Other investors join Sir Cohen in extolling SIBs as innovative vehicles of desperately needed capital that will drive innovative, effective, and efficient social programs because “investors will demand it.” Sir Cohen reasons, if the profit motive allows “the invisible hand” of the market to effectively govern economic relations, then by creating a financial incentive to address social ills, SIBs will unleash the invisible heart of the market in our social sector.

The Pitfalls: Perverse Metrics for Shallow Outcomes

To test this rosy hypothesis, the film tells the stories of several SIBs, and follows two in particular; an American SIB providing preschool to underserved children in Chicago, and a Canadian SIB providing housing to chronically homeless individuals in Toronto. Interspersed, are interviews with various experts. These experts explain how a profit motive combined with seriously imbalanced negotiations that rarely include stakeholders favour already proven programs that have easy-to-hit program targets.
Relentlessly pushed by funders, these targets create perverse incentives that fail to capture the human elements of care or the underlying systemic problems at play. What these targets are good at is practically guaranteeing a high return on investment whether or not anyone is really helped. One of the examples of this in the film is the case of a nonprofit program that offered a return to investors simply based on the number of people who used a program, regardless of their outcome.

Seemingly to emphasize all that the cold metrics of distant and out-of-touch investors miss, the film spends a lot of time on the heart-wrenching personal stories of program users in each of the SIBs it tracks. On the one hand, John, a user of the Toronto service who is addicted to alcohol,  still needs the service by the end of the program. His story effectively and humanely grounds our expectations of these programs. On the other hand, Reginald, a preschooler in Chicago, and his mother must cope with the murder of Reginald’s older brother a year ago. But these scenes do more to sentimentalize than address the systemic forces shaping educational barriers in Chicago. In both cases there is something uncomfortably intrusive about the film.

A Business Contract or a Social Contract?

Underlying it all, the film asks whether these services are a matter of charity or a person’s right as a citizen. This point is most forcefully put by a union organizer in Chicago at a rally to fight cuts to the ailing education system in which the SIB is embedded. It is also more subtly asked by the very design of the Toronto SIB, whose ultimate goal is to get individuals to a place where they can access the diversity of already existing services they are entitled to.

Indeed, David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says simply, we just need to fund public service adequately and give nonprofits a budget for evaluation. But this raises an obvious question: Why don’t we just fund public services adequately and give nonprofits a budget for evaluation? To answer this question would be the beginning of really understanding where SIBs come from and why they are proliferating despite the criticisms. Unfortunately, the film cannot even begin to ask it because it treats SIBs in isolation beginning in 2010, rather than embedding SIBs in the much longer history of how market thinking has influenced the public and non-profit sectors since at least the 1980s.

To tell that story would be to go beyond a “pros-cons” analysis and begin to explain the small funding envelopes, the negotiating imbalances, the assumptions built into certain evaluation approaches, and the radical inequality between the service recipients and investors we see in the film. In fairness to the filmmaker, that is a lot to ask for from a single film studying a trend that is really just emerging. But if there’s one thing this film makes clear, when it comes to SIBs, it’s time to ask some deeper questions.

Benjamin Miller is a summer fellow from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and School of Public Policy and Governance.

May 30, 2018 at 4:32 pm
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