Welcome to ATQ Consultants

We work across the public, social and private sectors to support the achievement, measurement and evaluation of social impact.

We're experts in

Evaluation and measurement of social impact

Evaluating projects for government and other agencies

Commissioning of Social Outcomes Contracts and Social Impact Bonds

Helping the public sector design and implement results-based contracts

Social investment

Working with social investors to support innovative projects

Capacity building

Helping impactful social sector organisations grow and prosper

Commercial readiness

Supporting organisations to research markets and win contracts


We provide the public, private and social sectors with leading-edge services that enable change, innovation and excellence in public service delivery, with a particular focus on outcomes-based contracting and the delivery of social impact and value.


We have delivered more than 50 projects ranging from major evaluation programmes to rapid advisory projects. Our Directors are both hugely experienced programme and project managers.

About Us

A boutique consulting firm established in 2012, ATQ stands for “Answer the Question” which we always promise to do.  Our Directors each have more than 30 years’ experience across public, private and social sectors.

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Social Outcomes Contracts (or Social Impact Bonds – SIBs) have been a big part of ATQ’s work since we formed almost exactly 10 years ago, in August 2012.  We are proud to have supported many organisations to set up and implement contracts, and in recent years have become heavily involved in research and evaluation of such contracts through work such as this for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Last week saw the publication of what might be the most high-profile piece of research we have ever done, into the value created by Social Outcomes Contracts (SOCs) in the UK since they first started more than a  decade ago.  Our report was part of broader work by Big Society Capital (BSC) to reflect on and celebrate the growth of SOCs over the last ten years.

The statistic that has gained most attention from our report, and was mentioned at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, is that every pound spent on SOCs in outcome payments has generated more that £10 of value. In other words, and in the technical language of cost benefit analysis, the Benefit Cost Ratio was 10.2.  Even if you accept that some of this value would have happened anyway (as it probably would in some contracts, but by no means all) we are still looking at a return to government and society of many times the initial outlay.

As one of many organisations that have been grappling with SOCs and SIBs, and whether they are value for money for many years, we hope this report will provoke further debate about whether and when such contracts are a useful tool in the commissioner’s armoury. Indeed it looks like that debate has already started, and we are happy to be part of it.  For now, I would offer three observations on this piece of work.

First, our report is and always was intended to be entirely factual.  It takes data on the outcomes that have been achieved by SOCs – as measured and validated by those contracts – and attempts to put a value on them based on the improvements they make to people’s lives. This is not an exact science, and so we were deliberately cautious – see below;  but we are making no judgement on the efficacy of SOCs, and nor are we comparing the performance of projects with each other or with other types of contract.  We have recently made a major contribution to another research report – the third update on the evaluation of the Commissioning Better Outcomes Fund – which does explore the strengths and weaknesses of SOCs in some depth, but this report does not do that.

Second, I am slightly puzzled by suggestions in some quarters that our value estimates are too big, and therefore somehow less credible.  Puzzled because we were deliberately conservative in our assumptions, as we explain in some detail in our report.  This is our usual practice when undertaking cost benefit analysis because we know that inflating ‘savings’ – either consciously or unconsciously – is self-defeating.  Our clients sometimes challenge our caution, and ask us to make more optimistic assumptions, but we tend to resist.  In this case we were even more cautious than usual, consistently using low estimates of unit costs saved when larger, well-evidenced estimates were available; assuming no sustainment of outcomes such as periods of employment;  and leaving many outcomes which potentially have value out of our analysis altogether.  The truth is that whenever we have done this type of exercise, the estimates we produce tend to be large because the costs of adverse outcomes – children in care, young people long-term NEET, older people needing hospitalisation for conditions that can be managed better at home – are themselves large, and much greater than many realise.

Finally, both the work we have done and the wider analysis by BSC seem to me to confirm that, whatever their other benefits and defects, these types of contract are delivering a pretty good ‘bang for buck’ and have leveraged a lot of value for not much spending. This is not just because of the benefit cost ratios outlined above, but also due to two other factors.  First, according to BSC’s figures these results have been achieved with the injection of around £71m in social investment. This is much less than many expected, and there has been criticism in some quarters that investment in SOCs has fallen well short of projections.  But a ’glass half full’ view would be that this is a good thing. The amount of working capital needed to smooth the wheels of these contracts (mainly to make the payment by results mechanism work for social sector organisations) has been much less than the total contract values, and this makes them pretty efficient.

The second point is that government and other bodies (notably the National Lottery Community Fund) have funded a high proportion of outcome payments made through SOCs, leading to criticism that such contracts only exist because of such funding. This is likely true (there have been very few contracts implemented without some form of subsidy from one or other so-called Outcomes Funds) but it does look like a reasonable investment, and it looks like a very good investment when one considers the particular case of the Commissioning Better Outcomes Fund and Life Chances Fund, which typically cover 20-30% of total outcome payments – with the rest coming from local commissioners. So the effective leverage of these contracts is maybe 3-4 times what it would be if they were wholly funded by government or the Community Fund.

And since many commissioners and providers have said that they would not have put up their own money without this pump-prime funding, what’s not to like?

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For the last two years I have been a Fellow of Practice at the Government Outcomes Lab (GO Lab) which is part of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. It has been an immense pleasure and privilege to have had this role, from which I step down at the end of the year.

The GO Lab is doing a great job in bringing together a wide range of thinking on how we better deliver pubic services and address complex societal issues, around a central focus on how we deliver better social outcomes.  This has also been pretty much the raison d’être of ATQ for the last seven years, which is in part why I ended up as a Fellow in the first place.

The Deputy Director of GO Lab, Nigel Ball, last week published this blog with some challenging reflections on whether and how a new government, with a substantial majority and clear mandate to govern for five years, will address the knotty problem of public service reform.  I am extremely loath to summarise Nigel’s complex and nuanced arguments, and would urge you to read his blog in full before you read this one, but his central thesis is that public services have, for several decades, drawn heavily on both private sector management practice and, through outsourcing and privatisation, direct provision.  This has led to a focus on top-down targets and contract-driven accountability for service performance and delivery.  Nigel argues that:

“Many people – and much recent research – would agree that these ideas, though once useful, are running out of steam. A new approach seems to be slowly emerging, with a very different core underlying idea: greater participation with communities. No longer should we view social problems medically, talking of a “treatment” at the right “dosage” which can be measured for its “effect”. Rather, citizens themselves, grouped by a shared geography, interest or need, can participate in designing and delivering public services. No longer should we use top-down contracting mechanisms, making both public and private delivery bodies answerable to government agencies for the services they run. Instead, government and its agents should give away some of their decision-making power, and work together hand-in-hand with communities and civil society organisations. This might mean they hand over more cash no-strings-attached, and trust people to be intrinsically motivated to do a good job. For some of the most evangelistic proponents of the new approach, even the idea that it is possible to “deliver” outcomes is misguided – if we focus instead on working out what a better system would look like, the outcomes we want will appear.”

My initial reaction to these ideas is that they have much merit.  In particular, I agree with the view that services should be designed with and for those they affect and are designed to help, rather than being imposed by those who think they know better; and that rigid contracting and commissioning models, backed by targets that distort delivery, can do as much harm as good. Beyond that, I would like to offer three ‘micro level’ observations and one ‘macro level’ thought.

At the micro level,  I think this sort of empowerment of communities can co-exist alongside some of the good things that have emerged from the prevailing models of the recent past, and that there are a few babies that I would not want to see thrown out with the bathwater.  These reflect both our own project experience and the evidence we have gathered through evaluations of others work.  They include:

  • The value of better evidence for what works (preferably supported by a thoroughly worked-through theory of change). Such evidence is far from perfect, and  there are many limitations to how robust it ever can be in a policy/social context, but it is I think better always to start from an evidence base where it exists.
  • The outcomes culture. Our consistent experience as both advisors and evaluators is that a focus on outcomes has benefits.  One of the major disappointments of national debate is that it focuses almost entirely on inputs, rather than on outcomes, or even outputs.  Witness endless bid and counter-bid throughout the election about who will build the most hospitals, recruit the most police officers, train the most teachers etc.  I have become a strong believer in the value of identifying, measuring and managing through outcomes, with and without monetisation, and would need some convincing that such outcomes-based approaches are a retrograde step
  • Strong performance management. By this I don’t mean the process of managing performance, which I agree can be over-driven by arbitrary targets. But much of the research I have seen shows clearly that any project – in-house or outsourced, contracted or grant funded, outcomes-based or conventionally measured – is crucially dependent on the effectiveness of those charged with its implementation.  At one level this is a statement of the obvious, but it is arguable that one of the biggest failures of the top-down, private sector-style management approaches we have adopted is that they still tolerate far too much poor performance; and one of the benefits of outcomes-based contracts appears to be that they encourage swifter and more radical action to address under-performance, often by strengthening and sometimes replacing existing operational management.

My big picture thought is to wonder whether government should start to treat spending to improve social outcomes truly as investment – and therefore closer to capital spending on infrastructure than current spending on services?  Many of the projects in which I have been involved in recent years have been supported by what is effectively an investment case – that spending on a preventative intervention will avoid or even reduce spending on a later, crisis-driven intervention.  The problem is that such projects are far too small to make much difference, and as a nation we never seem to have the resources to twin-track to scale – to spend enough on prevention to make a real dent in the long-term costs of poor outcomes, alongside the ongoing expenditure needed to deal with those outcomes.

But if outcomes-based contracts can be funded by external investors – and deliver them a return when they succeed – it should not be beyond the wit of government to adopt the same approach, and fund much larger programmes from borrowing rather than from taxation, underpinned by a business case that shows a return on that capital.  There are numerous areas where this approach could be adopted but how about targeted public health programmes, support to families with complex needs, and interventions to reduce substance misuse for starters? Done properly, such investment could be at least as justifiable as spending on infrastructure.

And yes of course I know that the Treasury would, to coin a phrase, rather ‘die in a ditch’ than allow this, but even an old cynic like me should be allowed to dream sometimes.