Former Capacity Building Consultant
It is an exciting time to work in outcomes measurement and Collective Impact. We are getting smarter about the way we talk about and act on social issues. We are engaging in meaningful discussions about outcomes measurement and Collective Impact, with a focus on discipline, measurement, and accountability. In the past decade, there have been countless conferences and events on this topic; many of them offering a different framework or tool to help organizations do this work better. We are hearing about Theory of Change, Program Logic, Collective Impact, Social Return on Investment (SROI) and many other new frameworks.
With so many options, and so many experts telling us these are all essential, it is difficult to know what to use and how to begin. In some cases, we are seeing organizations and collectives deciding to use them all. I can understand why – they all have their strengths, but on their own, they are not addressing everything an organization or collective would require from a framework to ensure discipline, measurement, and accountability.
So where does Results-Based Accountability™ fit into the equation?
Results Based Accountability™ (RBA) is a disciplined way of thinking and taking action that is being used around the world to improve the lives of children, adults, families, and communities as a whole. It can also be used to measure the performance and impact of programs, agencies, and service-systems. Because the RBA framework is so comprehensive, it actually encapsulates Theory of Change and Program Logic. It also provides evidence for the 5 conditions of Collective Impact and Return on Investment. Therefore, RBA is the one framework organisations and collectives really need to consider as their framework for outcomes measurement and Collective Impact. Organizations like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Red Cross Tasmania, Anglicare WA, Anglicare Tasmania, Promise Neighborhoods Institute, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Child Friendly Leeds (UK) have all found RBA to be the most useful framework in their effort to create meaningful, measurable social change.
Program Logic and RBA
RBA uses a simple, common-sense way of thinking. It starts with the desired ends – or outcomes – first. It then leads people through a 7-step process for identifying the means to achieve those ends, while using data as proxies for those outcomes. It is through this process that a community or organization can develop their Theory of Change through a data-driven decision-making process.
On the other hand, Program Logic begins with means, and then makes assumptions about what outcomes those will achieve, without the use of data. The danger of starting with means is that the means are rarely put into question and are therefore unlikely to be changed. Program Logic doesn’t clearly distinguish program-level (or customer-level) outcomes from population-level (or community-level) outcomes. Program-level outcomes contribute to, but are not singularly responsible forl, population-level outcomes. Often when looking at someone’s Program Logic, it will illustrate how customer-level outcomes will directly result in community-level outcomes. This is misguided because it forgets that large-scale collaboration between many different organizations, agencies, and programs is what actually leads to community-level changes. This is why RBA clearly distinguishes between Population and Performance Accountability – to clearly explain the difference and relationship between program and population outcomes.
Before a program or project is created, the first step should be to consider qualtiy of life issues in the community. This is done by analyzing population indicators and coming up with strategies and programs to address indicator curves that are “Not OK.” The second step is to clearly articulate the intended customer outcomes for the program and develop a set of program measures in order to gather data to test if the program is working. One of the strong points of RBA is that it actually helps people develop relevant performance measures. RBA has a number of resources and tools that are available (in addition to the 7-step process mentioned earlier) that assist in the development of relevant and useful performance measures.
SROI and RBA
SROI is a cost/benefit methodology that proposes to assign a monetary value to social (population) outcomes that a service “causes.” For example, a family counseling service might be “credited” with preventing one case of child abuse. The full value of preventing a child abuse case is then “credited” to the service. This approach misses the point that population level change is always bigger than any one program and credit is necessarily shared across many services. The SROI framework depends on causal assumptions that are open to challenge, and the resulting calculations are of questionable value.
RBA provides a basis for developing return on investment ratios for social services, without resorting to these kinds of shortcuts. Sound cost/benefit analysis starts with the ‘better off’ program measures in RBA. Better off measures describe changes in skill, knowledge, attitude, behaviour, and/or circumstance for customers of a program or service. For example, in a job skills training program, a “better off” measure might be “% of program participants that find and keep good jobs.” These measures allow a “value for money” comparison to be created by comparing customer outcomes to unit cost. For example, “The program placed 90% of its participants in jobs, and the program cost only $1,000 per participant.” A return on investment calculation can then be based on a disciplined analysis of “What would have happened to these people without the program?” Since some participants would have gotten jobs anyway, the analysis is complex but can be achieved with sufficient effort. RBA describes the contribution, not causality, relationship between program performance and population well-being. And it supports methods of communicating program value without taking SROI-type shortcuts.
Collective Impact and RBA
I wonder how people actually do Collective Impact without using RBA. I have often heard that when communities embark on their Collective Impact journey, they might do their Theory of Change first. Once this is done, they have to choose another framework to do the rest of the work. However, with RBA, all they have to do is follow the 7 question process at the population level:
- What are the quality of life conditions we want for the children, adults, and families in our community?
- What would these conditions look like if we could see them?
- How can we measure these conditions?
- How are we doing on the most important of these measures?
- Who are the partners that have a role to play in doing better?
- What works to do better, including no-cost and low-cost ideas?
- What do we propose to do?
Engaging in this 7-step process provides the Theory of Change and helps you meet the 5 conditions set out for Collective Impact. I know this sounds simpler than it actually is. I acknowledge that to tackle complex social problems, people need skills which go beyond answering 7 questions. However, RBA provides a disciplined process that engages stakeholders and provides robust, data-driven decision making. It is an iterative process that ensures that Collective Impact’s mutually-reinforced activities align with the population outcomes that the collective is focused on.
No outcomes framework is going to change the world. People need to do that. RBA is a tool that can be used to drive the change in a more disciplined way. It makes good sense to use a framework that can give you your Theory of Change, complete your Program Logic, help you come up with relevant measures, build your evidence base, promote innovation, and achieve Collective Impact.
If you want to learn more about how RBA can help you, we would be happy to talk to you. Please contact: