I was at a party the other night talking with a group of people about what I do in the outcomes area. The normal reaction I get when I tell them that I’m a psychologist is straight forward. However, when I tell them that I’m an outcomes strategist I usually get the following reaction – they look at me, gesticulate, roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh, it’s so hard to prove that what you did changed high-level outcomes’. Of course, this is what happens in the capital city where I work because just about everyone here is either a policy wonk, or in a relationship with one. And we all know that the whole international wonkery is obsessed with measuring outcomes.
In the rest of the country I usually get blank stares and people tend to quickly move on to the next guest to talk about something that makes sense. But sometimes I get people who just don’t perceive that there’s any problem to be solved in measuring outcomes. It’s always a little disturbing to have someone implying that there’s no real basis for a whole area of work you’ve involved in. I got this some time ago from a taxi driver on the way to an evaluation conference. I also got it again the other day the other night at the party.
A guest, who I later found out was a local government politician, heard me talking about being an outcomes strategist. He launched into something along the lines of: ‘I would have thought it was very easy, just measure the dollars’. Initially presuming he worked in the private sector, I gave my usual speel about the private sector and outcomes. In comparison to the public sector, it has the huge advantage that its outcomes are always measured (well the ones that people mostly focus on) and the measure is a common one (the dollar) which is used right across the entire sector, regardless of the type of work people are involved in. There’s also some more complicated stuff about the sector tending to have a more relaxed attitude towards attribution (proving exactly what caused what) than the public sector. I’ll blog about that second part sometime in the future.
When I introduced the point that non-financial outcomes, rather than financial outcomes, are at the heart of what’s done in the public sector, he then said something like: ‘well you just measure all that in surveys’. He thought that the whole problem of outcomes was simply solved by tracking outcomes over time. I pointed out that whether things were getting better in the district where he was in charge said nothing about whether this was caused by his work. Things might be getting better in every city in the world because of general positive trends affecting everyone.
Up until this point, in my view, he was simply committing the basic outcomes fallacy of thinking that measuring a not-necessarily controllable indicator somehow shows that one has improved it. (see Duignan’s Six Type of Evidence That a Program Works diagram).
When I told him as politely as I could that I though he was not actually proving anything about what he was personally making happen, he introduced a more sophisticated argument which cannot be dismissed so easily. This argument was that he ‘hears from the people all the time’ and that he gets feedback from the different encounters he has with the people who live in his district. He also added that ultimately they would tell him if he wasn’t doing a good job.
Our conversation got interrupted about this time so I didn’t get to continue talking to him. However, thinking in formal outcomes theory terms, in this second part of the conversation, he could have been making two somewhat different arguments. One is that his immersion in the nitty-gritty of working with the people in his district brought him into direct contact with the lower-levels of the outcomes model he was seeking to achieve (the model of the steps needed to achieve high-level outcomes – which can be operationalized in the form of a visual DoView). Being able to directly ‘see’ that the lower-level steps were being put in place (e.g. new environmental regulations), and having a sound logic of the intervention at hand (environmental regulation leading to a better environment), plus a measure that environmental issues were improving, it was reasonable for him to claim that he had established he was having an impact. In Duignan’s Types of Impact Evaluation Designs, this is the seventh type of design: Intervention Logic (Program Theory/Theory of Change) Based Designs. It can be accepted as a credible impact design by stakeholders in some situations. Of course there’s always the question of who the observer is who is making the claim that lower-level steps have been achieved. But presumably we could get some independent assessment as to whether the lower-level steps were, as he was claiming, happening, so the logic of the design makes theoretical sense as a way of attempting to prove impact.
An alternative argument he could have been mounting, if the wanted to be very pragmatic, is that the fact that he keeps getting re-elected is what ‘hearing from the people all the time’ means in practice. Looking at it this way, he would be defining his outcomes as not changing things in his community (which he may well wish to do) but just as a matter of him getting re-elected. If this is the case, then the fact that he is regularly re-elected means that, by definition, he is achieving his ‘outcome’. And this outcome could be translated into something like ‘keeping the people satisfied’. The argument then would be that keeping the people satisfied was the best way of achieving outcomes for the community within a democracy. I think that this is an example of pulling the ‘outcome’ you’re trying to show you changed back down the outcomes model so they get to some lower-level where its easier to prove attribution.
So while, in my view, his initial claims about it being easy to figure out what is causing outcomes were weak and did not establish anything actually about him having an effect on outcomes, his second round of argument had more substance to it.
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