As of this year’s Budget, some $29 million has been set aside to introduce the practice of “social bonds" as a new way to fund and deliver social services – in this case, mental health vocational or employment services.
The idea’s a simple one. Take a social service – like providing support to people with mental illness, and take it right through from help with daily living to getting and keeping a job – and find a private investor who is willing to stump up the cash to pay for it. If the agreed outcomes are met, the government will pay back the money, plus a reasonable return on investment.
Elsewhere in the world, it’s known as social impact bonds, but here, it’s known as a social bond. And it’s got the likes of the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists (NZAP) hot under the collar. Kyle MacDonald is their public issues spokesperson and says the NZAP doesn’t believe an untried experiment should be imposed on the most vulnerable group in our society – people with significant mental health issues – especially when it comes to an expectation that such people will easily find and sustain paid employment.
Someone who’s a bit less hot under the collar is Marion Blake, chief executive officer of Platform Trust, an umbrella organisation for a brace of mental health services.
Marion Blake says that social bonds may free up philanthropic social investment to supplement government funding. And, more importantly, it should be recognised that people with mental health disability have expressed a desire to be placed in paid employment, but may not have been well served in the past.
A little more concerned is Garth Bennie. He’s the chief executive of the New Zealand Disability Support Network, another umbrella organisation, representing a wide range of services, mainly in the disability support sector.
Garth Bennie says it would have been nice to have had an extra $29 million invested in existing supported employment services, which have been historically "chronically underfunded". He says, "The move to a new, untried system of funding and delivery of such services is a bit of a side show, and we should not be fooled by the term “innovation”, because it is a new thing!"
Shirley Cressey is the founding manager of Earthlink – a social business that has enabled 800 people to find employment in a range of paid employment settings, from recycling to environmental waste management. She says she hasn’t received a lot of information about social bonds in her sector, but she’s open to any improvements they might encourage. According to the right-leaning think tank The New Zealand Initiative, which largely supports social bonds, it is still too early to tell whether they achieve what supporters claim.
However, Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, Bill English believes they are another tool for the government to use to improve job outcomes for people with mental health disabilities. And to those who doubt whether people versed in the language of investment and shares can determine what is a quality mental health job support service, he says that when it comes to a negotiation over outcomes, the expertise of mental health services will be deferred to.