Outcomes and the Programme for Government
The beginning stages of Stormont’s next Programme for Government are being ironed out.
Talks are ongoing both around the PfG itself but also between parties around the membership of the Executive – and these will inevitably be interrelated.
The DUP and Sinn Fein will almost certainly want some company in government. The UUP and SDLP, have ruled themselves out, while Alliance's participation looks very unlikely. Discussions on ministerial positions will probably continue into next week. This has interesting consequences for the key document ahead of the coming mandate.
Regardless, unlike previous PfGs – and unlike other governmental schemes, Assembly and Stormont, as well as practices in the private and third sectors – this paper will take an “outcomes-based” approach.
Initially, that sounds like nothing new. Surely all plans have targets and are thus focused on outcomes?
Not so. In fact, this is a relatively new model that is starting to gain more and more traction around the world. Locally, it has taken hold in the past few years in the children’s sector, to huge success.
So much so that Celine McStravick, Director of the National Children’s Bureau NI, is hosting a global summit on Outcomes-Based Accountability in Belfast in October this year.
The summit is aimed at statutory, private- and third-sector organisations generally, no matter their size or their area of work. As such, it is a step forward for best practice, in the most general sense.
According to Ms McStravick, outcomes-based accountability (OBA) – also known results-based accountability (RBA) – broadly breaks down into four steps.
- Outcomes: identify what you want to achieve, your high-end targets
- Choose what indicators best measure these outcomes
- Identify how to change these measurements – “turning the curve” is the jargon - a process that must involve speaking to all stakeholders, including relevant service users and frontline service providers (and, in the case of governmental policy, it is emphatically not civil servants, politicians and party policy officers drawing up plans together)
- Decide what works / what is working, using analysis of indicators’ data – here the key is to build in to your initial plan an ability to get rid of actions that are not bringing any benefits, perhaps provide more support to those that are of benefit, and also the ability to identify and adapt new actions that might turn the curve, and move the indicators in the desired direction; any effective framework needs to have the ability to evolve built into it
Ms McStravick told Scope: “Many people might assume that traditional models are naturally outcomes-focused. This isn’t true. For instance, in terms of public policy, the traditional way of looking things is to realise there is a problem, then to cook up plans that sound like they might help this problem, with this plan involving a number of different actions.
“Those actions then become your targets, they all get ticked off as you go, and it’s unlikely anyone will know whether they are working or not. When it’s all over, a review might be commissioned that may well be able to say whether there has been positive change – but, if it hasn’t, if the actions haven’t worked, by then it’s too late anyway.
“Impact is embedded within OBA, it is not a list of actions it is a process for planning part of which is reflecting on the difference that has been made, or not made.
“OBA is not about inputs and outputs, it’s about what works. It has brought large and very welcome success to different aspects of the local children’s sector in recent years.
“However, it has not been easy, and it will not be easy for any and all other sectors as they move into this way of working. It forces people to ask very difficult questions about what they are doing – and can result in well-worn practices being thrown out.
Viewed in this way, it seems impossible that the current talks – with a deadline of next week – will come up with a fully-finished Programme for Government, with policy aims constructed in the above fashion.
Ms McStravick agrees. “I think these talks are likely to be about the first and second stage of producing a Programme for Government under the OBA principles. They will try and identify high level aims, and the relevant indicators.
“It will – and should - probably take a few months to get through the other two stages of the process and get a completed PfG.”
If that sounds a little abstract, it is, but practical examples make things more illustrative. If you want to improve educational outcomes at GCSE level among working-class protestant boys, the indicators are obvious: GCSE results for working-class protestant boys.
Stage 3 is more subtle. In a sense, this is where the real work starts, as the factors that determine any given outcome (and, therefore, its indicators) can be manifold and complex.
Pinning these down cannot be done without speaking to the key people involved – so it cannot be done simple by civil servants (or by staff members in the private and third sectors). This engagement can also continue into fourth stage, which is designed to force any plan to evolve in order to improve outcomes.
Ms McStravick said: “This example shows one of the ways that OBA can remove another problem that perhaps has caused a lot of issues at Stormont: silo working.
“If we want to improve the GCSE results of working-class protestant boys, it cannot and is not simply a matter for the Department of Education. Some of the factors would clearly come under health, the health of young people clearly has an effect on educational attainment. There might be issues around social culture, and who their role models tend to be, and perhaps this is for the Department of Communities and the Executive Office. Other departments would also be involved. They key point is that OBA regularly measures the success of its own actions and so, if things are not working, they are forced to change.
“And the people who need to be spoken to stretch outside government. Parents, teachers, the young people themselves, GPs, and more. This third stage requires real engagement.
“I love data, and data is vital to OBA, but it will not work without full and proper engagement. You need to find out the story behind the data. Without this, statistics and information can be misunderstood and therefore misused.
“Done correctly, this leads to another great advantage of OBA – if you have the right indicators and you engage properly with the correct people, the measurements you make in the fourth stage actually allow you to gain a better understanding of the problem or issue at hand.
“To work, OBA has to be transparent, at every stage. There needs to be openness about the desired outcomes, openness about the indicators used to measure those, about and within the engagement and planning, and then openness about the assessment of what is working and what is not working. This means it is also incredibly effective in helping people hold the government to account.”
Ms McStravick is clearly a huge supporter of OBA.
Outcomes & Impact takes place at the Waterfront Hall in October and its speakers include Mark Friedman, Director of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and author of Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, perhaps the key text in OBA.
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