ACTCOSS and the Community Sector Leaders Forum held a joint event last month that provided an opportunity for leaders of community sector agencies in the ACT to critically reflect on 'whose outcomes' we are pursuing, who determines those outcomes, and how we know we are making a difference.
Framing questions about our outcomes
Our first speaker, Jared Raynor, Director of Evaluation at TCC Group joined us through a video presentation from the USA. Jared got the ball rolling with a provocative and bold challenge of the notion that 'there are no dumb questions'. Instead, Jared outlined a three-step checklist that as professionals in the sector we may use to conscientiously format and frame questions about our outcomes:
- The first step was critically reflecting why we ask questions. Jared shared four overarching reasons: as a response to funders (an expectation), to demonstrate value (as a prop), to learn something not self-evident (seeking improvement), to make a point or persuade others (as a tactical weapon). Jared shared that understanding the sometimes quite varied reasons that underpin why we ask certain question will help us better craft questions suitable for the context at hand.
- The second step was being aware of who frames the outcomes that then are the subject of our questions. For example – is it our funders, staff, or clients? Jared suggested we prioritise genuine engagement with our clients, from the planning, execution, and the results stage.
This may not be easy, and will entail moving beyond common perceptions of our clients that include: ‘they don’t know enough, they don’t have time, or it’s inappropriate to have them involved’, but ultimately will enhance our outcomes questioning process. Another tip was nestling our questions within larger macro frameworks, for example in the ACT this might include considering the ACT Community Services Industry Strategy 2016-2026, The Social Compact, or the ACT Human Rights Act.
- If the first step sought to highlight the values that motivate our questioning, and the second step helps us reveal the hierarchy of whose perspective matters in the construction of our question – the third and final step seeks to help us be aware of the subconscious perceptions we might bring to the table in this space.
This means asking sometimes uncomfortable questions such as:
- How does race, ethnicity, equity, and inclusion show up in our questions?
- Who is being left behind?
- What are the implications of categorical grouping?
Embracing an outcomes approach
Our second speaker, Stephen Bennett, Research Officer at the Centre for Social Impact, distilled three main drivers of the increased interest in an outcomes approach:
- It is about putting the people we serve – whether in an advocacy or service provision role – at the centre of our work, as a realized outcome is the desired change we are seeking.
- By focusing on outcomes rather than activities / outputs, we are able to better understand and articulate the social and economic benefits our sector provides to the community.
- New commissioning approaches have a strategic focus on outcome measurement requiring new skills and modes of thinking.
The NDIS ILC Toolkit has a quick table that outlines the key differences between an activity / outputs and outcomes.
So how can our organisations truly embrace an outcomes approach?
Stephen highlighted the importance of cultivating a learning culture that supports the systematic and ongoing use of knowledge, and information, for continuous improvement. While having tools, process methods, and opportunities for staff to deepen their capability in this space is important – it is not enough. Ultimately, it is a deep rooted learning culture that will ensure there is the real possibility for everyday practice to be improved.
Outcomes frameworks discussion
There was also sharing and candid discussion regarding a variety of existing outcomes frameworks such as:
- The NSW Human Services Outcomes Framework
- Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Outcomes Framework and Data Dictionary
If you have questions, comments, or are interested in outcomes, please contact us.