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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

“The Way We Were (& Can Be)”

This is a guest post by Adrian Bordone, co-founder of Social Solutions.

Thomas Friedman’s recent NY Times Op Ed ends with this simple, startling conclusion: “And thus does a great country, with so much potential, slowly become ungreat.”  While his piece never draws a direct comparison, it’s no stretch to assert that the human services sector could be another instance of a “great country with so much potential.”

The current budgetary crisis reminds us that sensible decision making continues to be precious and rare in the highest offices of our representative democracy.   Keeping this in mind, those of us at the bitter end of federal, state and local funding must continue to buttress ourselves with an ample, if not overwhelming, set of data that substantiates our claims that what we do makes a measurable difference.  To forfeit the pursuit and accumulation of this evidence of impact is to contribute to the nonsense that imperils the individuals and communities we serve.  We have it within our power to take the higher ground toward intelligence, rather than the low road to compliance.  Accountability has been maligned as the punitive force driving toward a lowest common denominator.  There was a time and place for this type of evolutionary thinking - Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) - but the times have changed.  Performance management is the “strengths-based” approach to identifying and replicating effective and efficient service delivery.  

High-performing agencies are transforming themselves from compliance-driven data collectors to performance driven intelligence generators.  The best of them acknowledge that they are introducing scientific method to the art of service delivery.  This structure creates a context for the pursuit of what works that reveals incite as much as outcomes.  This is the American Way.  This is the new currency of the sector.  This is as innovative as diet & exercise.   It is the fabric of our inheritance and the light on the path toward greatness.  Grant-making agencies from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to the State of Massachusetts Office of Finance have recognized this and begun to guide direct service providers in this direction. As John Kamensky, Sr. Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, has already noted, despite a professed federal commitment to changing the way service delivery informs funding (read John Bridgeland’s account of the Feds’ commitment to performance management in The Atlantic), it is actually state and local efforts to identify and replicate evidence-based program initiatives that are leading the sector in performance-based funding.

We are on the precipice of a sea change.  I believe in our lifetimes we will see a human services sector that demonstrates its desire to make a difference by proving its impact, that measures and improves the difference it makes not merely by anecdotes and that drives change at every level by relentless attention to data.  This transformation can’t come soon enough.  We certainly haven’t done ourselves or the individuals, families and communities we serve any favors by failing to distinguish the interesting from the useful.   Arguably, we have been complicit in, if not outright causing harm to those we aspire to serve.  

John Kamensky, John Bridgeland, Nancy Roob, Mario Morino, and dozens of other human services leaders will speak to this change December 3-4 in Washington, DC, at After the Leap, a conference dedicated to outcomes measurement, performance management and organizational change.

With the focus on results brought about by Charity Navigator 3.0, I’m confident that very soon it will not only be the leaders in the sector who recognize the need for a change in the way services are provided, measured and funded but organizations at all stages of development.

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