Opportunity Outcomes - by Brendan McDonnell, CENI Director

Imagine a government and civil service that asks just one question….”What have we done to improve the wellbeing of the people?”

Well, that is where Northern Ireland is now, with wellbeing outcomes writ large in the draft Programme for Government.

The natural second question is “How do we get ready to make the most of this new wellbeing outcome focus?”

At CENI, we’ve been on this a while. Since 1995, our sole purpose has been helping the third sector, and those who resource it, to focus on delivering the best possible outcomes.  With the Programme for Government (PfG) now introducing outcomes based planning and reporting into the heart of the public sector, it’s been refreshing to see people really grasping the idea of outcomes as they start to understand the benefits of planning to make a difference rather than deliver activities.

Times of change can be challenging. In the wake of the PfG, government is now rolling out the OBA™ approach to outcomes -  this asks people to think differently and to consider the linkage between their programme work and the higher level outcomes contained within the PfG. While OBA™ requires working out numerical indicators and performance measures, it is also critical to know the story behind the figures. As is frequently the case with programmes addressing complex social problems, statistical measures are often not readily available nor do they explain the whole story of change.

Getting at the story behind the figures requires developing a shared understanding of the causes and effects in the first place. And that is only made possible by talking to the key people involved in the process of planning community programmes and services. Initiating Co-design within Departments and between Departments and service providers is just one new challenge. Designing programmes to deliver, and report against, outcomes rather than activities is another.

CENI’s current work, and that of the Inspiring Impact NI programme we manage, is therefore now focused on four main areas:

1)      Facilitating stakeholders to map a theory or ‘Story of Change’ for their programme or project, thus developing a shared understanding of the story behind the figures and connections to wider policy outcomes of the PfG.

2)      Using the Story of Change approach to bring programme designers and service providers together to define and agree specific programme outcomes together.

3)      Using the step changes specified in the Story of Change to help funders identify which contributions to outcomes they might best support and the Performance Measures that flow from them.

4)      Enabling third sector service providers, and public sector and independent funders to put outcomes at the heart of their work by establishing good impact practice – from planning for outcomes; collecting and analysing data; to review and communication, using tools such as ‘Measuring Up’ a free online self-assessment guide.

Here are just some examples of our current work.

·         We are currently running information sessions designed to help VCSE organisations, sub-sectors and funders to understand how they can orientate their work against the draft Programme for Government outcomes and OBA. (These are ongoing and can be provided on request for organisations or sub-sectors) 

·         We are working directly with Departments, statutory agencies and local government to facilitate the planning and co-design of programme outcomes, data collection and reporting. These include:

-   DARD: evaluation of the Rural Community Development Support Service (2012 – 2016)

-   Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council with Community Development & Health Network: supporting a pilot of community planning and co-production project.

-   PSNI/NI Ambulance Service: Youth Volunteer Academy - pilot project

-   Department for Communities , Voluntary and Community Division: supporting demonstration projects across a range of programmes to develop an outcomes based approach to funding.


·         We are also conducting project evaluations with VCSEs in which we engage with the organisation to co-design a theory of change and project outcomes and then generate data to report on progress and evidence change against the specified outcomes.  These include:

-   Advice NI: Older Peoples Projects

-   PTA: Building Stronger Communities through Volunteering - pilot project.

-   Family Mediation NI: Pre-Court Mediation Service


So while the PfG may mandate the use of an OBA™ approach, our experience tells us that people and organisations need to be better prepared in terms of their understanding of and planning for outcomes before engaging in the technicalities of measurement.  Facilitation in the use of complementary approaches such as logic models and theory of change, coupled with support to engage in co-design processes are an essential pre-curser to implementing any outcomes approach. 

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