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Authors: Meghan Joy and John Shields

Social impact bonds (SIBs) are spreading worldwide in the absence of public debate and proof that they improve social outcomes, despite claims to advance evidence-based policymaking and transparency in government. A critical policy reading of SIBs elucidates this conundrum. We argue that SIBs are part of a neoliberal political project that uses austerity as an economic and moral symbol to manufacture consent for social service reform. The intent of this research provocation is to identify future avenues for empirical research on SIBs to further assess how the tool reconfigures social policy in a profoundly neoliberal direction.

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There is a gap between the policy problems faced by twenty-first century cities and their proposed solutions, which are often small-scale, siloed and unsustainable. Cities face growing poverty, a rise in precarious work, unaffordable housing, decaying infrastructure, climate change, social polarisation and, most recently, a deadly infectious disease. The urban crisis is rooted in the failures of neoliberal policy characteristic of advanced capitalism, intersected with other systems of oppression. Turning the clock back to liberal urban policymaking will be insufficient. We propose a policy agenda that studies transformative urban movements, including local activism and movement building, policy agenda-setting and design, and policy implementation and evaluation. While these are the expertise of scholars of urban politics and policy studies, transformative urban movements have not been on their radar. In this article, we explore why and examine how urban politics and policy studies can ground and support transformative change.

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Social innovation has come to be widely embraced as a fresh problem-solving approach to address what are framed as stubborn and costly social policy challenges. Paradoxically, despite claims to newness, SI is often cast as a neutral path to identify ‘what works’ to solve problems. This apolitical positioning fails to contextualize the socio-economic and political dynamics in which problems and SI have arisen. This chapter engages in such a contextualization and re-politicization of the SI agenda.

The SI agenda jumped into prominence in the wake of the 2008 ‘Great Recession’ and must be understood as tightly tied to neoliberal projects of austerity. In this chapter, we argue that SI helps us to understand the ways in which the neoliberal project has proven to be ‘an adaptive creature of crisis’, embracing policy ideas and reforms needed to drive forward its agenda. Its engagement in a ‘permanent revolution’ of experimentation and policy shapeshifting has been necessary, ironically, because so much of its market-based reforms have been failures (Peck et al 2012). We argue that the movement from ‘roll back’ (‘greed-is-good’) to ‘roll out’ (‘markets-with-morals’) neoliberalism has been facilitated through SI (Peck nd) and warn that this current phase of ‘neoliberalism with a smile’ remains centred in austerity. Neoliberalism’s adaptive abilities enables it to co-opt many seemingly alternative ideas, stripping them of more progressive political projects that might be at their root. For instance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review has accepted the austerity argument that there is just not enough state fiscal capacity to deal with meaningful social policy reform.

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