‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’!!

Aongus O’Keeffe – April 2018

As most people know by now, one of the few positive and progressive things to come out of the Stormont Executive in the last couple of years was a commitment to making Government here more focused on the outcomes of the work it delivers and the investments it makes for people and communities in Northern Ireland. We may chuckle or agonise at the irony of this in the current environment – and the fact that a draft Programme for Government (PfG) developed in 2016 still remains in draft stage today, lacking the political sign-off that would enable it to become airborne.

Nevertheless, life goes on. The civil service continues to run the country and administer the funding programmes and services that are required to make the place tick. In the absence of any other guidance or framework the draft PfG is the principal guiding structure that binds all departments and agencies of Government. With a political vacuum with no end in sight, arguably there has never been a better opportunity for government to transform how it goes about its work and become a more efficient, effective and outcomes-focused entity.

So how does it do that? Where do you start? How do you redesign the aeroplane while continuing to fly it?

Here at Community Evaluation NI (CENI) this takes up a lot of our thinking time. With support from the Building Change Trust we have begun to lay the foundations for establishing an Outcomes Observatory that can support, challenge and inform Government & the Voluntary/Community (V/C) sector as they embark on this journey towards outcomes.

We recently hosted a knowledge exchange event, bringing together representatives of central & local government, V/C sector and academia to deliberate on the findings of a scoping study CENI has been undertaking to inform the Outcomes Observatory in its research focus over the coming years. It also presented an opportunity to debate and discuss some of the issues and challenges of overlaying an outcomes model on systems that were designed and developed with a different purpose in mind.

To help inform the discussion we also brought Dr Ailsa Cook over to share some of the insights and learning from the Scottish Government’s experience of adopting an outcomes approach nearly 10 years ago.

The lessons that Ailsa shared very much resonated with the findings from the scoping exercise:

  1. Need for outcomes approaches to be developed through partnership and co-design – this also resonates with the language of co-design articulated in the draft PfG – that policy and funding programmes must not be designed in a vacuum or in the proverbial ivory towers, rather they must centrally involve people and communities with a deep understanding of the issues/needs. It also requires the myriad of responsible departments and agencies to work more closely together and be aware of their respective roles and how each ties in together.


  1. Need for guidance, learning and support to transform ways of thinking and working – we can’t expect the whole of government and a diverse V/C sector to change overnight without significant support and investment in people and systems. There is a real need for on the job learning, peer sharing and independent facilitation to help build trust and confidence to make this happen and genuinely shift to a new way of thinking & working. If this support is not available, the risk is nothing will really change.


  1. Need to recognise the complexity of the issues to be addressed – many of the societal challenges we face cannot be reduced down to a simple indicator or measure and any programmes aiming to address protracted social issues must factor in the multi-faceted and complex nature of the problem (including public policy and power structures that feed into them). See example below of obesity system map that conveys the complex nature of just one of these societal issues – it is clear from this that no one intervention can address or ‘cure’ obesity. A particular intervention is merely making a contribution to addressing the overall scale of the problem.


There is a real need for programmes and projects be clear on the elements of the problem they are trying to address and for which they can thus be held accountable.  Addressing any such complex problem – or achieving any complex outcome is akin to a patchwork quilt – each patch needs to have a clear purpose and then needs to be well made in order for the big picture to come together. No one programme, department or agency can produce the proverbial quilt – it is the collection of patches woven together that helps achieve the overall outcome.  This is essentially the performance v’s population accountability distinction in Outcomes Based Accountability™ speak.


  1. Outcomes thinking is hard, takes time to learn and is easily subverted – Culture and systems are pervasive and for real change to happen there needs to be investment in addressing the culture and adapting the systems so that they are aligned for an outcomes-focused way of thinking and working.


  1. In order to be able to prove outcomes at any level, we need to improve how we go about achieving them – this includes all aspects of the programme cycle but particularly in the collection and use of data. Relevant data needs to be collected in a proportionate way and if it is not being used to learn and improve then there is no purpose to asking for or collecting it. Mechanisms need to be put in place that value and make use of qualitative data as much as the quantitative.

We see each of these issues as enablers or determinants of executing an effective and genuine outcomes approach – that is to say if these things are not done then very little is likely to change. Our intention now is to establish the Outcomes Observatory to look at how well we are implementing an outcomes approach and these five areas in particular will serve as a baseline or benchmark for improving practice in the future. This will be done using a practice research approach.

Our interest is in seeing what impact moving to an outcomes approach is having at different levels – and if it is not, why not? Are we doing the things that all evidence and learning suggests are necessary for implementing an outcomes approach? We see this as a journey of learning and improving and have a lot of expertise and insights to share and support. CENI has been providing hands on support to a range of funding programmes in working through some of the issues highlighted above and moving them towards genuine outcomes focused thinking and working.

Aongus is the Programme Leader at Inspiring Impact NI, based at Community Evaluation Northern Ireland
To get in touch e-mail: aongus@ceni.org