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 2015 alone there have been more than 5 conferences and events on this topic; each one of them offering a different framework or tool to help organisations 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 organisations 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 organisation 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, as well as evidences 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. Organisations like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Red Cross Tasmania, Anglicare TasmaniaPromise 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 organisation 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 for 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 organisations, agencies, and programs is what actually leads to communty-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 analyse the emerging issues in the community. This is done by analysing measures of community wellbeing and coming up with strategies and programs to address these issues. The second step is to clearly articulate the intended 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

One of the main concepts of SROI is that it is possible to assign a monetary value to social outcomes that an organisation makes. The SROI framework uses a particular formula to do this. However, return on investment can be calculated in many different ways. If a program or organisation decides to calculate their social return on investment, this becomes a program quality measure that they can analyse and use to make decisions for the future of their programs. SROI helps organisations to align their performance measures with financial measures, but it is not an easy framework to use and can be incredibly time consuming and resource intensive.

It is also challenging to assign a monetary value for some social outcomes, particularly those that RBA refers to as ‘better off’ program measures. Better off measures describe changes in skill, knowledge, behaviour, and/or circumstance for customers of a program or service-system. For example, in a job skills training program, a “better off” measure might be “% of program participants that find and keep good jobs.” These are the most important measures we need to determine because they help communicate the effectiveness of our efforts and the value of the program itself. RBA is clear that a return on investment measure tells an important story about a program and is an important measure. However, it doesn’t tell the whole story; which is why ‘better off’ measures are so vitally important. These measures enable organisations to determine their contribution to community-level well being and then communicate this contribution to funders and community members. While determining SROI can sometimes be a useful endeavour, RBA provides a simpler, yet effective way to communicate program value.

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:

  1. What are the quality of life conditions we want for the children, adults, and families in our community?
  2. What would these conditions look like if we could see them?
  3. How can we measure these conditions?
  4. How are we doing on the most important of these measures?
  5. Who are the partners that have a role to play in doing better?
  6. What works to do better, including no-cost and low-cost ideas?
  7. What do we propose to do?

Engaging in this 7-step process provides the Theory of Change and helps evidence the 5 conditions of 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.

Written by:

Maya Romic
Consultant
Results Leadership Group Australia

This article first appeared at http://resultsleadership.org/blog/