Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much for inviting us to appear before the committee today.
Let me offer a few words about us.
SRDC is a not-for-profit, independent social policy research organization. We were established in 1991 at the request of Employment and Immigration Canada to design, pilot, and evaluate new social programs. Now, 24 years later, we have completed more than 200 projects for federal departments, provinces, municipalities, private foundations, and other non-profit organizations. Our work spans all areas of social policy writ large. In recent years, SRDC has been engaged in several projects on the application of performance-based funding and a social finance approach applied to the field of employment services, adult education, and training.
One reason we are here today is that more specifically, in January 2014 ESDC contracted us to be the independent evaluator for two essential skills training projects. Essential skills, as probably many of you know, are defined as literacy or foundational skills that are required for work, learning, and life in general.
These projects are the first two social finance projects launched with the support of the federal government. This was announced by Minister Kenney at the World Social Enterprise Forum in Calgary in the fall of 2013.
In both projects, private investors pay for the training up front and are repaid by the government if the training is successful in achieving pre-established outcomes. You may wish to look at the diagrams we have circulated to get a sense of the architecture supporting the delivery of the training.
The first pilot project, on the slide that has “SIB pilot project for unemployed” in the title is led by Colleges and Institutes Canada, CICan, which plays the role of SIB intermediary. They are working with four colleges across Canada as the service providers.
The project proposes to enrol 400 unemployed, lower-skilled Canadians to receive a program called Foundations, which is an established essential skills training program developed by Douglas College in B.C. This project is testing what would be considered a true social impact bond model in which private investors will recover their initial investment plus a financial return of up to 15%, if the training is successful.
The second project is the flip side. This one is addressed to people who are already employed. It's led by the Alberta Workforce Essential Skills Society; they are the proponent of the project and the intermediary for this pilot.
In this case, the private sector employers will be reimbursed up to 50% of training costs for up to 800 workers, if the training achieves target outcomes. This is a variant that we call “employer as the investor”. It's a departure from a formal SIB, because the investor is not motivated by return on capital investment per se but by the prospect of economic returns from a better-trained and more productive workforce as well as reimbursement of training expenses.
In both of these pilots, government reimbursement of training costs is triggered based on gain in literacy skills. These are measured pre- and post-training, and they are used as a proxy for labour market outcomes success.
Up to this point our organization has been supporting the leader of these projects in the design of the program and has developed reimbursement formulae for both projects. We worked on investor risk-reward scenarios to establish graduated payment schemes and comparability of the SIB offering with market investment. It gets fairly technical, as you can see.
Positioning these projects in the social impact bond literature, I would say that they have some of the core features. First of all, the private investor pays the full cost of the intervention up front; the SIB addresses a well-identified social environmental problem or goal—that is, the high vulnerability of low-skills workers in the Canadian economy; and the activity generates a social dividend and economic return to investors. There are social and economic benefits associated with a more skilled workforce, and private investors in both cases are achieving returns on investment. The payback to the investor is from government and is tied to measurable results.
There is the presence of cashable savings for government. The more people who are trained, the more earnings they make, the more tax they pay, and also, the less reliance on employment insurance and social assistance programs.
Some or all of the risk is borne by the private sector. If desired outcomes are not achieved, private investors bear a large part of the costs.
But they're not like some SIBs we have discussed before in the sense that we're focusing on intermediate outcomes to trigger the payback—that is, skill gains—and not directly associated with measurable cash savings to government.
It goes to show that there is no one unique SIB model, and we came to this realization fairly early in this process, when we were looking at the literature and were looking at what other countries were doing. There are different ways of orchestrating these arrangements.
To conclude, here are some key observations about what we've learned so far. We're not an advocacy group. We could advocate, but we're not going to advocate. We're evaluators, so we present a neutral point of view.
First, we observe, of course, that social impact bonds and social finance schemes in general can be very complex. Defining success outcomes, reimbursement terms, and appropriate metrics to measure success, all of that is fairly complex. Our approach was to ground the rationale for the repayment scheme in evidence of point gains from previous essential skills training intervention to define a benchmark. We look for benchmarking in the process. Then we calculated risk-reward scenarios to prepare a graduated payment scheme that rewards higher levels of success with higher returns on investment. This we had to engage into, while we expected something much simpler at the beginning.
SIBs involve substantial transitional costs because there are a lot of people involved in the process, from investors to intermediaries to service deliverers. All of these people have to work and interact together and come to agreements, and it's a long process, so transitional costs are high.
At the beginning what we realized is that, despite the political interest and support for these projects, the legal and regulatory environment in Canada had never heard of SIBs and it was not adequately prepared. The intermediary for the SIB for the unemployed—that is, Colleges and Institutes Canada—which is structured as a non-profit and charitable organization, had to examine and review alternative corporate structures to be able to receive and administer the SIB funds. It spent a fair amount of money on consultants to figure out how to go about it.
Attracting private investment can be challenging. Potential investors range from benevolent investor foundations and the like to those who are more commercially oriented and who seek market returns on their investment. People whom we call “finance-first investors” may sometimes accept the risk of lower returns if their investment is supporting a good cause but that is not yet the general norm.
ln the case of the workplace essential skills training model, we have learned from the project leads that there can be hesitation to make the significant up-front investments from investors. They are not used to the formula and they are often tempted to rely on other government programs where the subsidies or the support from government is known and more tangible.
In other jurisdictions, the availability of funds for SIB investment has led to more rapid development and implementation of SIBs than in Canada, for good reason. As you well know by now, in the U.K., the creation of the Big Society Capital independent financial institution was a major lever to get them going.
The third point is accounting for all costs and benefits. SIB arrangements would be more likely to attract interest and popularity not only if governments were willing to reimburse investors on the basis of cash savings that their own fiscal frameworks will record but also if they would take into consideration all social and environmental benefits that can be generated through SIB intervention.
As I mentioned, SIBs could be very resource intensive. Without a large definition of benefits, including those going to society as a whole not only those affecting the fiscal framework, they would be harder to popularize.
One other difficulty for Canada is that many of the cash savings don't end up with one government. A lot of social policy is managed by the provincial governments, and they are the ones that will realize the bulk of the cash savings. While the federal government will also realize some cash saving through increased tax or other means, connecting the two is something that has to be achieved if you want to make sense of SIB implementation.
My last remark is to say that we are in favour of further exploration of SIBs in Canada, but please evaluate them carefully. It's not a proven recipe, as we've heard from previous speakers.