Pick up any UK policy document and the chances are it is dripping in references to outcomes.
Earlier this year I was at an event organised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence which highlighted how central outcomes-based approaches were to all four administrations of the UK1. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all engaged in significant exercises to map out the outcomes that are important to their populations and to develop measures and indicators to see whether they are on track.
In Scotland, the concept of outcomes is interwoven with the ongoing drive to reform public services through a focus on efficiency, accountability, partnership, personalisation and co-production. But why? How can a focus on outcomes help with these things?
We believe that focusing on outcomes helps organisations, projects, funded programmes, services and even governments achieve three things:
- Communicate what is important
- Learn and improve
- Be accountable
Communicate what is important
A clear and shared purpose is critical to delivering on complex and collaborative projects, from small initiatives to whole programmes of government. Communicating the outcomes you want to achieve at the start helps everyone stay focussed on the task at hand and shows how the work of different partners contribute to the whole. Indeed, having clear and shared aims and vision has been identified as vital to effective partnership working (see the What Works Scotland Review of Partnership working).
Learn and improve
Projects rarely unfold quite as intended. For projects to be successful, teams need to regularly monitor progress, identify blockages or opportunities and flex their approach in response. Having a clear ‘theory of change’ that articulates how you think your activities will achieve your desired outcomes and what needs to be in place to make this happen, provides a foil for this reflection and learning. For example, in our work with a health and social care project, getting their whole team together to review the evidence as to whether they were on progress to realise their outcomes identified numerous opportunities to improve the service and the way they went about evidencing their work.
In a context of austerity, projects are increasingly being asked not just to demonstrate what they do, but also the difference they make. Outcome measurement for accountability was first introduced in the 1950s and ‘60s in the USA where major funders of social projects, like the Kelloggs Foundation, wanted to find out more about what happened to the people who used the projects they funded. In recent years it has spread to local and central government in the UK.
All four UK administrations now have a suite of national indicators and measures so they can report performance and be accountable to the public. Services and funded projects are also commonly asked to report on the outcomes of their work and in some cases payment is linked to achievement of these outcomes, for example through Payment by Result schemes.
However, a warning. Of the three reasons for focussing on outcomes, accountability is the most tricky. Many public service projects are delivered in complex systems where many factors influence final outcomes. In this context, holding projects accountable for delivering outcomes over which they have limited control can lead to a raft of unintended consequences.2
Using a theory based approach, such as our Outcome Focus approach, that shows how projects contribute to improving outcomes can help organisations overcome these issues. We will explore issues around outcome measurement and understanding cause and effect in a later post.
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1See this Alliance paper summarising the different national outcomes approaches and some common learning (pdf)
2 See this What Works Scotland paper on Outcomes for a review and links to other sources.