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Social service providers ‘need to invest in analytical capacity’

2015-02-12_12-54-47High-quality, continuous evaluation is becoming more important for service delivery organisations as social service contracts become more focused on outcomes, according to a new report

Delivering the Promise of Social Outcomes — joint-published by Social Investment Lab in Portugal, Impetus-PEF in the United Kingdom and Think Impact in Australia — highlights the increasing importance of social performance analysts in making data on social programs “more meaningful and useful”.

The report provides evidence that rather than cutting funding for administrative spending, service delivery organisations should be considering greater investment in back office capabilities.

Initially, says author and social impact analyst Emma Tomkinson, research was aimed at figuring out “the critical features of a great case management IT system”, but it became apparent that the key to successful social service organisations was the relationships between its performance analysts and service delivery staff.

[pullquote] “What struck me was how insufficient our analytical capacity is as a sector.” [/pullquote]

“Over and over again, people told stories about the positive feedback loops created between stakeholders, rather than the answers provided by their IT system,” she said.

“What struck me was how insufficient our analytical capacity is as a sector. If we are serious about continuous evaluation and improvement, then we don’t just need good IT systems, we need people to make them relevant.”

The report notes three key trends pushing a greater need for effective performance management systems and their analysts:

  • Outcome based contracts, where service delivery organisations are paid on the basis of the social outcomes they achieve, are proliferating;
  • Social benefit bonds, where investor returns are dependent on the social outcomes achieved by the programs they invest in, are increasingly emerging;
  • The idea of “collective impact” is rapidly gaining traction due to its requirement that organisations collaborate to deliver social outcomes.

Delivering the Promise cites the productivity benefits enjoyed by Peterborough Social Impact Bond in the UK as an example of a social service program using performance management systems effectively:

“The Peterborough Social Impact Bond has one data system that is used by several service delivery organisations to record information on a shared group of clients. Clients attest to the benefit of only having to tell their story once, and delivery staff describe the benefit of sharing information on client progress. One of the workers delivering family support services said, ‘When you’re thinking you don’t have the answer, someone else might … as a social worker I’ve never had that before; I’ve always been on my own.’ The system has led to successful adjustments to the original service, such as the introduction of mental health services.”

Inflexible contracts and overly proscriptive donors are common barriers to sensible program adjustments, as well as media and outside evaluators who “penalise” charities for spending on administrative costs and overheads.

Dan Miodovnik, an associate at Social Finance UK, developed and manages the performance management systems at Peterborough and two other social impact bonds. He argues the analyst’s role is to increase the productivity of front-line staff by allowing the benefits of data to be captured without being a drag on staff resources:

“The delivery staff are the experts at designing and delivering the service. Delivery staff time is best spent with clients, not entering data into a computer. My job is to make their lives easier — to give them easy access to better information as they make day-to-day decisions with clients. We try to design our systems with this at the centre. It means we think about remote access, formats that align with client meetings etc. I’ll be the first to admit that we never quite get it right, so the IT system and its processes are continuously being adjusted and improved.”

As Miodovnik points out, good data is only one half of the equation:

“On a regular basis, we also conduct customised analysis on the service. Sometimes this is conducted for managers or investors, but often it’s requested by delivery staff. They might say to us “can you compare the success rate of my clients who received residential support in comparison to those who did not.” We can provide this information.

“But, we will often go back to them in order to get the other half of the story not always captured on the IT system. This qualitative information can be critical to understanding the service. They can tell us what questions to ask the data. We can tell them what the data is showing. But understanding why this is happening and what to do about it? That’s when we need to work closely together to marry both sets of information and make changes that help us provide better support to our clients.”

Antonio Miguel, director of the Laboratório de Investimento Social in Portugal, points to the kinds of insights that can be reaped by the combination of effective data systems and program knowledge:

“Analysis of data will suggest changes to the service at all levels. For example, an analysis of the times that missed appointments were scheduled might suggest that some days of the week are worse than others. When adjusting the service, you should always assume that people are reluctant to change, particularly people on the ground, so you need to bring them along. You need to show them the benefits of the change, whether it be better access to information, responding to client need, less time inputting data.

“It is a great feeling to see improvements in the service that beneficiaries receive, ultimately improving their quality of life and outcomes. This is continuous learning for social change.”

The report and further resources for implementation are available at the Delivering the Promise website.

More at The Mandarin: Emma Tomkinson: how to show your workings on social investment

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.