Social Outcome Measurements Must Be Prioritised, Conference Told
13 February 2013 at 1:54 pm
Paul Ronalds from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet addresses the Measuring Social Outcomes conference in Sydney. Picture: Jackie Hanafie
Measuring social outcomes should be a policy agenda priority and the Federal Government needs to work with the Not for Profit sector to achieve effective measurement outcomes, delegates at a Sydney conference have been told.
Said to be one of the largest conferences on social outcomes in the world, the Centre for Social Impact’s Measuring Social Outcomes two-day conference has seen around 300 people in attendance on the first day.
Paul Ronalds from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told the conference that the subject of how to drive productivity improvements in the social sector was a “critical issue”.
“Measuring social outcomes effectively is one of the issues that should be right at the top of policy makers’ agendas,” Ronalds said.
He told the conference, made up of mostly Not for Profits, that there were a number of challenges to social outcome measurement currently faced by the Federal Government.
“Measuring social outcomes is actually hard work,” he said. “From my perspective in the Federal Government it’s actually very difficult.”
Ronalds said that one of the key challenges for program implementation of the government’s programs is often they are in the hands of others: state governments, Not for Profits and sometimes for-profits.
“There are more players than ever before. So there is less direct control,” he said.
He said that in the past, governments were the key players in delivering social services.
“That’s certainly not the case here in Australia. The role of Not for Profits is absolutely critical.”
Ronalds said that while there are a number of institutional challenges that need to be addressed in measuring social outcomes, he cited the Federal Government’s budget operating rules as one such challenge.
“There’s a range of other practical issues that significantly reduce the scope of robust evaluations: a lack of budget, insignificant time and data constraints,” Ronalds said.
“Often ‘better than nothing’ often passes for ‘good enough’.”
He said that while he was focusing his points from a government perspective, his experiences suggests that the Not for Profit sector experiences similar constraints.
“The pressures of finding funding, of beginning implementation and dealing with a myriad of stakeholders on the ground, often means that measuring outcomes does not receive the sort of attention it should until it’s too late.”
However, Ronalds said that the difficult fiscal environment that both federal and state governments currently find themselves in is creating “strong incentives” to squeeze more out of existing dollars and to make tough prioritisation positions in the measurement of social outcomes.
“This is helping to create an environment where certain central agencies like the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Treasury are particularly interested in evidence of social impact,” he said.
Ronalds said there was “great hope” for measuring social outcomes in Australia.
“The fiscal environment is pushing us all in the right direction; it’s making it much more likely that those organisations that are able to demonstrate their impact with robust evaluations are going to get increased funding,” he said.
“There is a range of very positive initiatives being undertaken – and it’s interesting that nearly all of them are being undertaken in close collaboration with Not for Profits and for-profits and other institutions.”
However, despite these positive factors, Ronalds said that there was a long way to go.
Ronalds said that in the short-term, it was important to look at evidence-based evaluations.
“The Office of the Not-for-Profit Sector is working with Federal Government departments to identify a range of other new programs that include social impact methodology and other forms of evaluations,” he said.
“We also need to work very closely with the non-government sector to identify and promote good evaluation practise.
“But in the longer term we need to address the structural barriers that prevent good evaluation.”
When addressing some of the solutions to increasing the measurement of social outcomes, Ronalds said that there needs to more access to government data, which is critical for long-term evaluations.
“Australia lags any other countries in access to data,” he said.
“However changes like this will only occur with the support of the non-government sectors.”
Centre for Social Impact chief executive Andrew Young opened the conference and said that the number of delegates was an encouraging sign that the outcomes management space is attracting “much interest”.
In the context of the size of Australia, Young said that the fact we have a solid impact system was an “amazing opportunity” to create a quantum change in the effectiveness of the social impact system.
“We have strong underlying systems,” Young said. “There is much opportunity in the next ten years to make some strides in this space.”
Paul Ronalds said that that the number of people in attendance at the Measuring Social Outcomes conference gave him “enormous hope”.
“This conference is certainly a testament to the social sector’s growing appreciation to become much better in measuring the performance of social programs,” he said.
The Measuring Social Outcomes conference was produced by the Centre for Social Impact together with Criterion Conferences.