This is a custom heading element.


Rob Wilson, Alec Fraser, Jonathan Kimmitt, Stefanie Tan, Neil McHugh, Toby Lowe, Mildred Warner, Susan Baines and Eleanor Carter


Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are an innovation wherein, in theory, private investment, instead of government funding, is levered to fund social interventions (Warner, 2013; Edmiston & Nicholls 2018). They are promoted as a funding mechanism that will allow innovation in delivering social outcomes and provide opportunities for new providers to enter the ‘market’ for delivering social outcomes. Currently there are SIBs operating all over Europe and North America across a wide range of areas, including youth unemployment, mental health, criminal justice, and homelessness (NAO, 2015; Gustafsson-Wright, Gardiner, & Putcha, 2015). Yet, despite attracting substantial attention since 2007, predictions of an explosion of a market in bonds has yet to emerge (OECD, 2016). The editors of this Public Money & Management theme issue initially came together as researchers working in parallel on aspects of the social impact investment and SIB agenda and, as academics are inclined to do, we sought to collaborate through the means of a research conference in order to broaden the understanding in the crucible of theoretically and empirically informed debate.

This PMM theme is part of that collaboration with the original aim for our conference (initially a collaboration between Newcastle University and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine [LSHTM], with the University of Oxford joining later) being to bring academics together with a range of policy-makers and practitioners working in the emerging SIB landscape. We wanted to stimulate new areas for research, exchange knowledge and learn from and impact policy and practice, nationally and internationally. The conference confirmed what we suspected (then and now) that the SIB debate is truly interdisciplinary and heterogeneous; spread across a variety of academic disciplines, policies, practices, professionals, sectors and places.

Despite the white heat of interest, the empirical evidence to date on SIBs remains limited. This is partially due to the number of SIBs initiated or (the many fewer) completed. Much of the work consists of commentary papers located in the ‘grey’ literature or evaluation reports of specific deployments, often produced by interested parties pursuing reform agendas that focused on the proposed and assumed benefits of SIBs. Wider academic critique, present from the beginning, has questioned whether SIBs represent a new way of doing things or are merely a distillation of long-term trends (Fraser, Tan, Lagarde, & Mays, 2018).

In our call for papers for this PMM theme, we sought to learn from the academic community but also from policy-makers and practitioners who have been are evolving their thinking in parallel. Bringing together these, sometimes overly disparate communities, was important in relation to the challenges that SIBs seem to solve and create for stakeholders in order to bridge this gap by developing questions about the relationship of the overarching SIB ‘project’ with broader trends in social investment, social policy and social innovation in the wider social economy. Our themed issue also draws together a disparate community of academics working across a range of disciplines, including social policy, sociology, public administration, public management, law, political science, accounting and economics. The applied interdisciplinarity that ensues is partially a response to the multi-faceted nature of SIBs and the pressing questions that arise within an environment where there is pressure for a significant expansion of SIB-based programmes, despite the gaps in practical knowledge, empirical insight and theoretical understanding. The contributions we accepted for our PMM theme reflect this and naturally fall into two categories:

  • Learning going on in the thinking about and doing of SIBs and social impact investment where those working on, in and with complex applied areas report on their observations about the challenges of the making of SIBs and shaping of the environment for SIBs.

  • Contributions taking a step back from the space to examine the conceptual framings underlying the prevailing assumptions of investment and the role of investors.

Publication link

Full reference

Wilson, R., Fraser, A., Kimmitt, J., Tan, S., McHugh, N., Lowe, T., Warner, M., Baines, S., Carter, E. (2020) ‘Theme: Futures in social investment? Learning from the emerging policy and practice of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs): Editorial: Whither Social Impact Bonds (SIBs): the future of social investment?.’ Public Money and Management, 40(3) pp. 179-182.