This article was originally published in Pro Bono News.
Latitude Network recently took some clients with us on an ‘outcomes tour’ of the US to learn from organisations, funders and governments that are shifting to outcomes-based funding. This includes what the US calls “Pay For Success” projects, and we call Social Impact Bonds, as well as newer forms of outcomes contracting where a range of financial and non-financial incentives are provided for performance. Outcomes-based contracting is when a commissioner of services (usually a government but can include large philanthropy) agrees to fund a social service program where at least some of the funding is contingent upon the organisation achieving a target performance on clear, agreed outcomes metrics for service users.
Key lessons learned -
1) A shift to outcomes funding, while difficult, is a must
Our observation in Australia and in the US is that most people who work in the social sector (including government) want the work they do to lead to improvements in people’s lives. There is generally a strong desire in organisations - from the frontline to the Board - to work towards outcomes. The difficulty is that merely measuring outcomes or drawing up an outcomes framework, while necessary, is often far from sufficient to change behaviours and performance. Funding on the basis of inputs or outputs is a very blunt instrument with very low levels of data or feedback on what is working for long term, relevant outcomes.
Funding on the basis of outcomes, however, can provide the joint incentive to properly define, measure, track and deliver outcomes that matter to the service user. A range of different outcomes have been contracted, from reduction in recidivism, to early childhood development milestones to family reunification. Despite their challenges, everyone we met - from local and state governments such as Ventura County or LA County Department of Mental Health, to impact funders such as Maycomb Capital and First5 LA and service providers such as the Center for Employment Opportunities and Interface - everyone was focused on making the shift to outcomes-based funding.
2) Social Impact Bonds have been a useful tool to kick start the outcomes revolution, but will be only one of many tools for the next era in outcomes funding.
Our discussions with Emily Gustafsson-Wright and Izzy Bogild-Jones at the Brookings Institution highlighted how Social Impact Bonds have had powerful impacts on social sector performance, innovation and flexibility in service delivery, but there is little evidence that they bring a net additional amount of private sector funding into the social sector. This aligns with Latitude Network’s view that outcomes funding is best used to drive alignment of interests and flexibility for innovation between government, social sector and philanthropy, and should not be seen primarily as a tool for increasing private funding of social services.
3) Organisations that build outcomes-funded projects are transformed for the better - especially in managerial focus and performance capability.
All the organisations we spoke to had used the experience of an outcomes contract to drive important changes in capability and process within their organisations. One organisation, Center for Employment Opportunities (or CEO) in New York City, has built a sophisticated outcomes and performance management system that gives visibility to everyone, from the frontline to the Board, on how the organisation is tracking in delivering its mission. The organisation has a strong, singular focus on a cohort of high risk offenders leaving prison. It’s focus allows for a robust program logic and service methodology and it uses detailed performance reporting to achieve employment goals and reduce recidivism. Their data has helped them identify the most effective early responses (e.g. ensuring a client starts a job on the day they turn up), and helps frontline workers adjust their activities by getting regular, timely feedback and learning from high performers. CEO’s outcomes contracts with governments have helped provide the incentives to focus on outcomes.
4) A new ‘Outcomes Partnership’ approach between Government and providers can lead to better achievement of outcomes
Forward-thinking governments are entering into what we are calling ‘Outcomes Partnerships’ with social organisations to work together over time on defining and aligning around key outcomes that matter to services users. These partnerships allow for better targeted procurement procedures from government, adding additional incentives into contracts for achieving short and longer term outcomes, and ensuring transparency of data sharing that can shed light on areas of highest and lowest performance. They also provide a much higher degree of flexibility to both Government and service providers through ‘active contract management’ methods that allow for adjustment of performance goals as theory hits reality.
These partnerships are a part of the journey of various governments in the US to shift large parts of their funding base to be procured on the basis of outcomes rather than inputs or outputs.
Our visit to the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance in Boston revealed a forward-thinking government department that is leading the internal systems and behaviour change required to procure on the basis of outcomes, increase quality and sharing of data and establish trust between government employees and leaders and the social organisations they fund.
Latitude Network and our clients see Outcomes Partnerships as the next important step for the social sector in Australia.