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Outcomes measurement is really about change

Measuring outcomes should be a simple business. After all it’s only about measuring performance. Athletes competing in track races know exactly their level of performance and relative standing. Their times and places in races, and therefore relative performance, are there for all to see. So why does measuring outcomes seem so difficult in comparison?

At Family Action, measuring and improving outcomes for our service users is one of our three strategic priorities. We’ve made considerable progress in measuring outcomes and demonstrating impact as our Building Bridges service evaluation shows.  It’s not been easy, and challenges still exist, but along the way we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and used this to good effect. Here are some of the lessons learned.

Improving outcomes measurement is really about change. Usually it requires a significant change in practice to make it work.  Research by John Kotter in 1995 revealed only 30% of change programmes are successful. The biggest stumbling blocks are staff attitude and management behaviour. So, to measure outcomes, get better at change.

Leadership is fundamentally important. The right leadership behaviour focused on engaging people at an emotional level creates the right climate for this change. Work Foundation research on outstanding leadership provides good evidence for working on leadership behaviours at all levels as a route to improved performance.

However often rational arguments are put forward for measuring outcomes, the fact is, people largely operate and respond at an emotional level. At Family Action people work because they have a powerful commitment to improving the lives of our service users. But they also want job security, to be better at their jobs and some want career opportunities. These are all emotional drivers that link to outcomes and provide levers that can be used in change programmes.  For example, demonstrating improved outcomes improves the likelihood of continued funding and people keeping their jobs.

Ultimately, though, it’s about numbers and performance. These are not the reasons why many people work for charities. Sometimes data, spreadsheets and KPIs are anathema to those who are in it to help others. Supporting people through the change can work particularly if you can find ways to connect people emotionally to the data. But this is also about a change in skills for staff and managers, which means changing our selection processes and development programmes. In future, all our managers will need to be numerate and analytical.

Data and performance don’t come easy to many charities. We need to get much better at this, though, or risk stagnation or even failure. Outcomes measurement needs to be seen as an essential management practice for charities.  This will require investment in and prioritisation of individual and organisational capabilities to succeed. Commissioners of services also need to recognise the value of evaluation. Charities on dwindling resources will find it hard to fund evaluation unless commissioners invest in this as part of service contracts.

Top track athletes improve their results through years of dedication, hard work, analysis of their performance and a deeply held emotional commitment to their goals that overcomes the challenges they face. Like outcomes measurement it is simple and difficult in equal measure.

Norman Blissett is the Director of Resources at Family Action, a leading provider of services to disadvantaged and socially isolated families. He will be speaking at NPC and CFG’s ‘Impact Leadership Conference’ on 16th January 2013. 

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