The Rise and Rise of Outcomes
Article first published on Pro Bono News 22 September 2021.
With the move to reporting on outcomes gaining pace, Dale Renner, director of Latitude Network, shares advice on what social organisations can do to build an outcomes-focused organisation.
Have you noticed that more and more philanthropic and government funders are asking for proposals to have an “outcomes focus”? Impact investors and service commissioners increasingly want evidence that a program makes a difference.
The move to report on “outcomes” is gathering momentum and for good reason. The purpose of social sector funding, whether in homelessness, mental health or child protection, is to improve the lives of people – to make a difference. That’s also the mission of every social sector organisation.
An outcome is a way of defining and measuring this important “difference” made in someone’s life – between dropping out of school and finishing school, between being employed or not employed, between mental distress and a sense of wellbeing. By defining and measuring the right outcomes, organisations and funders can focus efforts on what matters most to the service recipient, and therefore make the most social impact.
Lessons from the Impact Bond Frontline
As we approach the next round of outcomes-based funding contracting in Victoria, we asked some of our recent Social Impact Bond* clients from across Australia to share their ‘top three’ reflections on how to approach and navigate an outcomes-based contract. Each of these organisations has been through the PAD/SIB process and so have first-hand knowledge of what you can expect. Our thanks to those who contributed.
* Also known as 'Partnerships Addressing Disadvantage' in Victoria and Social Impact Investments in some states
Innovating your solution
One client reflected on the ‘innovation’ aspect of PADs/SIBs suggesting that learning or borrowing from other models is a good way to augment your proposed solution. While PADs give us a chance to trial new approaches ‘...that doesn't mean reinventing the wheel necessarily - look around for what is being done in another place or with a similar cohort and talk to the organisations delivering the program.’
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of an outcomes contract is the need for us to zero-in on lived experience. One client reflected that ‘when including people from the front line, or those with lived experience, prepare and encourage them to bring their experience and knowledge to the table…’
Indeed, the process may be uncomfortable for staff, ‘...they may feel outside their comfort zone [but should be encouraged] to think about how they go about their work in a different way.’
Cohort and outcomes clarity
At the heart of a PAD is ‘being clear on your cohort and outcomes. Make sure you confirm this in the initial part of the project because you don’t want to get 6 months in and find you're not 100% clear on who and what.’
There is a flip-side to this outcome journey in all PADs and that is the service system journey for clients currently - what we can loosely call the ‘counterfactual’. ‘Make sure you understand the extent to which your clients currently use the service system and ideally understand how much this reduces through your program financially - savings are critical to government.’
Flexibility and new learning
One organisation suggested that ‘patience and a flexible approach is probably the most important’ thing in outcomes contracting. ‘Don’t expect it to be quick or straightforward.’ Another said to ‘be prepared for discomfort as you grapple with an intense and unfamiliar process, lots of workshopping, many unknowns and wondering how it will all come together.’
"Own the innovation space"
This excellent phrase was shared by one of our clients and nicely captures the way that PADS are trying to harness the relative strengths of each of the parties involved. ‘Don’t be afraid to tell the Government they are wrong. It's BAU for them to be conservative, NGOs should own the innovation space in front of Governments and be persistent’.
PADs really do alter the dynamics between Government and service provider. One of our clients put it this way: ‘You’ll need a thick skin and a strong commitment to what you know works. The Government’s needs aren’t necessarily your or the program’s needs and so you need to know what is non-negotiable.’
PADs also highlight the value of complementary skillsets. ‘You will be negotiating with numbers people… brilliant numbers people who have a limited understanding about the client group or how to do community development. They are great at what they do but so are you so don’t let them have it all their way!’
One of the benefits of an outcomes focus is that everyone is, effectively, a problem-solver. While Treasury officials are focused on the value-for-money challenges, officials from the line agencies will bring a practice-based focus: ‘Get other departments in the room. The line agencies will better know the sector people and programs - let them fight some of the programmatic battles for you.’
The outcomes contracting process is nothing if not intensive. It needs resourcing internally. One client advised that you will ‘need to have at least one person dedicated to developing this. Most NGOs will fund this internally, however, this should be seen as a valuable investment, even if you don’t get the program up.’
As for the mix of the team engaged in the process, you will need ‘a mixture of ideas people and do-ers who can buckle down and progress the hard yards of research, seeking out answers and project management.’
Good technical advisors
Some of the elements of an outcomes-based contract are highly-technical and specialised. One of our clients suggested that you will need ‘bloody good guides who have been there before and who can tell you when you are focusing on the wrong question’.
Build new data capabilities in the organisation
The process of negotiating a PAD, while intensive, can bring enormous benefits to the organisation itself. Becoming literate with data and how it can be used to check and adjust performance was seen as critical.
“Start with data… get literate about how numbers and data work because, at times, the process will become about the numbers ... Become an expert at it really fast and get your team used to measuring and counting at least something.’
Creating a culture of measurement and the gathering and use of evidence is seen as key to success: ‘Having a culture of using measurement and evaluation to improve the services you provide to clients really helps with structuring and implementing a SIB/PAD/SII’. And even where data might be scarce, start with a hypothesis and ‘...use external sources including public data sets (ABS, AIHW etc), research and evaluations …’ to try to confirm your hypothesis.
The journey of negotiating an outcomes-based contract can be revolutionary for an organisation, giving it the tools, confidence, funding and time to re-imagine the way that services are delivered for a specific cohort of people.
If you are interested in applying for the upcoming Victorian PAD, it's best to start preparing your model now. Get in touch with us if you want to learn more about the process and how to benefit your clients and your organisation.