Is Outcomes Measurement ‘Real Work’?

By Jenny Riley

The other day someone told me that they didn’t want to be taken away from the ‘real work’ to collect data for outcomes measurement.

As someone who has dedicated their career to measurement and evaluation I had to take a deep breath. As someone who has seen the real difference made by outcomes measurement to program impact, I had to take another breath.

I completely understood where this person – let’s call him Dan – was coming from. Dan works in a part-time role, serving a huge client group and like most workers in the not-for-profit world, feels undervalued and is probably underpaid. As a frontline worker, there is no limit to his workload, and he is obviously frustrated by data collecting processes that prevent him getting on with the business of meeting client needs.

My response in this situation is simple, but the answer is complex. Do you want to know if all the hard work you do is making a difference? Wouldn’t you rather allocate 20% of your time doing some measurement work so that you end up spending:

• 80% of your time on work that is measured, as opposed to:
• 100% of your time on work that you don’t know will make a difference?

I mean, which is better?

• 80% of something you can assess and improve on
• 100% unknown

But for this guy I get it. In the services sector, the 20% he spends on measurement is potentially one less child or family he’s able to see and assist each week.

But isn’t it fairer to measure the change for 4 children, and to adapt and improve practice for those 4, than to keep doing what you have been doing for 5 children without knowing if it makes a difference? In an ideal world, we would be able to provide services to all children and families in need of them, but short of more cash coming in, that is not going to happen. We have to do better with what we have.

We have to look at our time and what constitutes ‘real work’ differently. Time and resources are finite and our staff only have so much they can achieve in the hours of the day. We need to support them to undertake measurement activities so they can reflect, learn and improve practice. By knowing if what we are doing is making a difference (and how) then we can keep doing more of what works, and change or stop what isn’t. That’s ultimately how we improve the quality and reach of services. This may mean reducing KPIs, but it should also mean better quality work, greater ‘bang for buck’, and most importantly, better outcomes for clients.

But the question remains: how do we support front-line workers like Dan to be part of measurement without feeling they are letting down their clients? How do we create measurement systems that are useful for our workers so they feel like the investment (or reorientation of their precious time) is worth it? How do we get to a place where it is all considered ‘real work’?

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