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Australia Needs to Measure Social Outcomes

14 October 2014 at 9:39 am
Xavier Smerdon
Think Outcomes is a two-day conference presented by the Centre for Social Impact, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and the Social Impact Measurement Network of Australia taking place in Sydney in November.

Xavier Smerdon | 14 October 2014 at 9:39 am


Australia Needs to Measure Social Outcomes
14 October 2014 at 9:39 am

Think Outcomes is a two-day conference presented by the Centre for Social Impact, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and the Social Impact Measurement Network of Australia taking place in Sydney in November.

Around one in five people in Australia have a mental illness and almost one in five a disability, increasing their risk of being out of work, having a lower level of education and being socially isolated.

We have rising health and aged care costs, but a shrinking workforce and the highest level of youth unemployment in more than a decade. More than half a million children (0-14 years) in Australia live in jobless families. We battle with housing affordability and availability, and homelessness. And the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remains vast in many areas. Australia’s position on the international inequity list has risen. This is not just a problem for those who are being left behind; it also affects the functioning of society and the stability of the economy.

This is at a time when we spend around $300 billion a year on social purpose and where government resources are becoming increasingly scarce. Now, more than ever, Australia needs to concentrate on making progress on social outcomes. We need to focus on what we want to achieve, how we will meet these goals and whether, where, and under what circumstances, we’re making a difference.

Our social progress has arguably been stymied because we haven’t concentrated enough on outcomes. Together we’ve created a system that has good intentions, but more often focuses, counts and funds what and how much we do, rather than whether we are making a difference.

We need to know whether people are really any better off. Are our children, young people, adults, our aged, families and communities are any happier, healthier, or have a better quality of life? Are they more able to participate in education, work, their communities and socially?

Are people more resilient, included and connected? Do we know whether services, enterprises, innovations and supports are changing lives, communities and society? Do we know where to spend and shift our limited resources for social change? To be able to answer these questions, we need to focus on outcomes.

We need to be clear on what outcomes we’re trying to achieve, how we can achieve them and if and where they are occurring.

There is a plethora of literature around on evaluation, outcomes and impact measurement. But outcomes measurement isn’t easy to navigate.

Outcomes measurement matters because it can assist to achieve organisational learning, development and improved services/performance. It provides accountability and compliance to stakeholders (funders, donors, tax payers); communication, branding and organisational legitimacy; increased efficiency; organisational benchmarking, competitiveness and sustainability; and, most importantly, improved outcomes.

At a time when resources are scarce and markets are shifting to empower consumers to decide which services and supports they choose to purchase (think, for example, about the National Disability Insurance Scheme), organisations who do not measure outcomes are likely to be left behind. So, why measure outcomes? In summary, despite the sector you’re from, the answer is because we can’t afford not to.

Most literature on outcomes measurement recommends taking a step-wise approach, integrating the measurement pathway into overall organisational purpose, strategy and reporting. Once organisations are clear on what they can, need and want to measure, measurement methods need to be matched to rigorous approaches, quality evidence, stakeholder requirements and timing.

Effective outcomes measurement relies on strong support and commitment from leaders and funders to measure outcomes, share outcome tools and transparently report findings. Quality shared measurement will enable organisations to learn from each other, potentially save cost and time, increase quality, build an evidence base, and, hopefully, make social progress.

While individual evaluations can be important, if we continue to measure in silos, we are at risk of duplication, repeating the same mistakes, not being able to compare outcomes across intervention types or to solve the bigger picture social issues.

Now, more than ever as we face a major demographic shift, and as public spending shrinks in a diminishing social economy it’s time to shift our thinking. It’s time to ask: Are we measuring what matters, measuring it well and tracking change at organisational, sector, local and population levels?

We also need to ask the tough questions about what’s stopping us from effectively measuring outcomes, how we can overcome barriers to shared measurement and transparency and let go of concerns about precisely how much of a change can be attributed to each of us. When we answer these questions, we’ll really start to progress the measurement of social outcomes for Australia.

This editorial originally appeared in CSI’s quarterly review: Knowledge Connect

The author, Associate Professor Kristy Muir, is the Director of Research (Social Outcomes) at the Centre for Social Impact. She will be launching a guide to measuring outcomes at the Think Outcomes conference.

If you’re interested in contributing to the debate and discussion as to how we progress social outcomes measurement in Australia across all sectors and/or in exploring, learning about, building skills and developing a plan of action for outcomes measurement, join us at the Think Outcomes conference 20-21 November 2014, Sydney.

For more information:

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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