The End is in Sight! How Outcomes Shape Our Work
One of the essential elements of Results-Based Accountability is starting with ends and then working backwards to means. For some, this is a concept they are really familiar with. Others find it confusing. There are many reasons why starting with ends is important. But one thing is clear: defining the outcomes you want to achieve and gathering data both play an indispensible role in the first stages of community improvement work.
I was recently asked, “Why do we need to determine outcomes and data before we decide on what we are going to do (the ‘means’)? Don’t we look at the data once we start the work?”
Starting with ‘Ends’ – determining the outcomes
Depending on the work that we are doing – whether it be community planning with local government, a collective impact initiative, or even strategic planning within an organisation or network – starting with the outcomes that we want to achieve sets up a foundation for the rest of the work. This is the decision that steers the ship and keeps us focused on our desired destination. As a starting point, we must determine what it is that we have all “shown up” for (i.e. what the outcomes are that we are aspiring to work towards).
To understand the importance of starting with outcomes, consider the following anecdote:
Imagine you get in your car and start driving before you determine your destination. That would be confusing wouldn’t it? Because you didn’t take the time to set an end point, you end up driving around aimlessly. Because you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you can’t map out the best way to get there. Well, determining outcomes in community work is just like setting your final destination before a long drive. Determining outcomes is essential for “mapping out” your improvement strategy. It’s also easier for you to measure success (did you make it to your destination in a timely fashion?).
For example, we might all agree that we want ‘All children to enter school ready to learn.’ This outcome then shapes our conversations. It serves as the reason we are making a commitment, and it provides motivation to do better. Without agreement on an outcome in which to plan our course, we can lose focus and direction. The outcome also assists us in determining who our partners should be in our effort to improve. No doubt, there are other organizations, agencies, and people who play a part in making sure all children are entering school ready to learn. We must do our best to make sure all those involved become a part of the conversation.
Once we determine our outcomes, we should then begin to gather the data that will tell us how we are doing on achieving those outcomes. Following the example above, data that might help us determine whether our “children are entering school ready to learn”, might be “% of children rated ‘fully ready’ on a kindergarten readiness assessment.”
Data is an incredibly important component of the process, as it enables strong analysis of what is really happening in our communities. This understanding allows us to have robust conversations around the story behind the data and how to improve. In general, we should use 1-3 indicators at a population level to assist with this process; these form our “headline measures”. In Results-Based Accountability, headline indicators are the indicators that have: communication power (easily understood), proxy power (important) and data power (data exists). We should then track this data over time in order to measure our progress.
What happens when we do not use data?
When data is not included in the process:
- Our conversations become limited and lose focus from the outcome we aspire to achieve.
- It is impossible to track and communicate achievement of our contributions towards the outcomes.
- It prevents us from leveraging what is working and identifying and making adjustments to what is not.
- We have no way of tracking our performance and determining whether our actions are the right actions needed to contribute to our outcome.
So why is data so important in determining the means?
Data only starts the conversation. It is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Data should be used throughout any community improvement process, because it ensures that our conversations and actions are robust, evidence-based, and outcomes-focused. When data is absent from the conversation, it is impossible to truly gauge the severity of any given situation. We also need data to develop the ‘means’ (or actions) that are needed to turn the curve (improve) on community wellbeing.
When discussing the “story behind the baseline” (reasons data looks the way it does), additional data can also be used to enhance the story. These indicators may not be headline indicators, but they can highlight parts of the story of what is happening within a community. For example, consider the following anecdote:
I was recently in a region within New South Wales, Australia. This region has seen a significant increase in the “% of reported domestic and family violence incidents where children are present,” particularly in comparison to the state as a whole. Within this region, there are six significant local government areas. For each of these areas, there was a different story reported to be causing the increase in domestic and family violence. One particular area had even experienced a reduction in violence.
This type of data forced us to consider: ‘what is happening in this area that is different than other areas in the region?.’ We also considered: ‘what is the community in this area doing differently that we might be able to adopt in other areas across the region?’ If we didn’t use data in this part of our community improvement journey, we wouldn’t have gained an accurate understanding of the forces at play in domestic violence across the region. It would have also taken us longer to figure out “what works” (actions that have a reasoned chance of helping us improve) to turn the curve on domestic violence in New South Wales.
For some, data can seem scary. But the fact is that data is a liberating tool that can be used to really inform and enhance our story, our decision-making, the prioritisation of resources, and the implementation of our strategies.
If we don’t start with the ‘ends’ in sight, we can end up becoming stuck doing what we have always done. When we leave data out of the conversation, we have no way of knowing if what we are doing…is actually doing anything!
About the author:
Kate Tye is a consultant with Results Leadership Group Australia. She provides coaching, training, and facilitation with groups, communities and organisations on outcomes, performance management, strategic planning, and collective impact/place-based approaches. Kate has also worked extensively with Local Government, large NGO’s, and communities to implement Results Based Accountability.