‘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
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Case Study – Sported Gets ‘Fit for Impact’

Inspiring Impact NI has been providing support over a two year period to a range of VCSE organisations to ‘embed impact practice’ – a range of actions you undertake to help your organisation remain focused on learning, improving and being more impactful. Sported are one of those organisations and we asked them to tell us what embedding impact practice means for them. Read more here


Vote for Our ‘Getting the Balance Right’ Video


We need your help! Inspiring Impact NI has entered the ‘Getting the Balance Right’ video in the Better Together Video Story Competition for nonprofits organised by the Wheel. Our video summarises some of the challenges faced and potential solutions in relation to capturing the impact of Government investment in voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations in Northern Ireland. Voting is open now until 8 December 2016 and you can vote once every 24 hours. We would appreciate your support to help raise awareness of our work and good impact practice. Think smarter, think together, think impact! Please vote here 



How Well Do You Demonstrate Your Impact?

New tailored versions of Measuring Up! – our impact readiness tool – have been developed to help you review and improve your impact practice.

Measuring Up! is designed to help charities and their funders reflect on how well they plan and deliver their work and whether or not they are having the maximum impact.

The new tailored versions have been developed to specifically help funders and smaller and volunteer-led organisations. They will enable you to undertake a health-check on the key steps required to achieve and articulate your impact.

As you work through the self-assessment a concise picture will be generated outlining your strengths and weaknesses across each area. An action plan can then be downloaded to help you improve on those key areas of your practice.

The online tool comes with guidance on how it should be best applied and who should be involved in order to get an accurate picture of how well you are doing. The questions or indicators are divided into four sections: plan – do – assess – review to reflect the structure of the impact practice cycle.

Aongus O’Keeffe, Inspiring Impact NI Programme Leader said:

“We are delighted to add two new bespoke versions of this invaluable resource to help support the VCSE sector and their funders in Northern Ireland.  We would encourage all organisations and funders of the VCSE sector to sign-up to Measuring Up! and make a commitment to improving how you think and go about demonstrating the difference your work makes.

Measuring Up! can be accessed here.


Inspiring Impact NI Scoping Study examines public sector ‘readiness for outcomes-based funding’

report coverSo we know that Government has committed to an outcomes approach in the new Programme for Government. But what needs to happen to ensure the public sector is practically ready to deliver on this commitment? That was the theme of Inspiring Impact NI’s most recent Impact Exchange event at which we recently launched this report at Girdwood Community Hub.

We commissioned this study to explore the practical challenges facing public sector funders in introducing an outcomes-based approach to funding the VCSE sector, and to make recommendations about what needs to happen for this approach to be effective.

The report outlined findings across three key areas…

pdf for website

… and made three headline recommendations:

123 recommendations

Marking a key stage in the roll out of Phase 2 of the Inspiring Impact NI Programme, the event brought together a range of public sector and VCSE representatives to explore these issues.

Aongus O'Keeffe, Inspiring Impact NI Programme Leader, Edgar Jardine and Brenda Kent, CENI at the launch the Embracing Change report.
Aongus O’Keeffe, Inspiring Impact NI Programme Leader, Edgar Jardine and Brenda Kent, CENI at the launch the Embracing Change report.

Speaking at the event, Aongus O’Keeffe, Programme Leader, Inspiring Impact NI said:

“Inspiring Impact NI is delighted today to host this important and topical event as we move to the next stage of our plan for transforming how VCSEs and funders think about and demonstrate the impact of the work”.

“Although the study found that a gap exists between the vision for an outcomes-based approach and its potential operational delivery, we believe that given the right motivation, leadership and commitment by both the public and VCSE sectors to invest in change that there is considerable potential to address this gap.”

Brendan McDonnell, Director, Community Evaluation NI said:

“CENI is delighted to deliver the Inspiring Impact NI Programme and to play a key role in championing the need for good impact practice across the sector. The draft PfG sets out how the NI Executive will deliver their priorities underpinned for the first time by an outcomes-based approach. An outcomes-based system of government if properly implemented can bring considerable advantages in terms of improving decision making, collaboration, resource allocation and demonstrating public benefit. However, implementing an outcomes-based approach is challenging – it is vital that public funders and their VCSE sector recipients are made ready for this challenge.

“As the ‘Embracing Change’ paper launched today highlights, the key message coming through is one of preparation – and while some preparation is happening in terms of training people in the technicalities of outcomes measurement – there needs to be more, particularly in terms providing people with a wider explanation and understanding of the concept of outcomes and what this means in the context of their own work areas.”

The Inspiring Impact NI Programme is a Building Change Trust initiative supporting VCSE organisations and their funders to better understand and apply impact practice.

As the Northern Ireland partner on the UK board, The Building Change Trust has invested over £750,000 over a 4 year period (2014-2017) in a dedicated programme of support for the VCSE sector and its funders locally. This has been supplemented with £240,000 from the Department for Social Development (DSD).

Community Evaluation NI (CENI) has been commissioned by the Trust to support the development and delivery of this programme.