Outcomes are not the enemy
‘Outcome’ is not a terribly old word in the social sector, but it’s caused a lot of confusion in its short life to date. It’s used to describe results as ‘hard’ and measurable as educational attainment or sustained employment, and as ‘soft’ and intangible as confidence and resilience. It’s sometimes even pressed into service to describe outputs and observations such as beneficiary attendance at a session, or enjoyment of an activity.
But the ‘outcomes-led approach’ (which might be defined as the belief that anyone working with beneficiaries should be intentionally trying to move them towards defined ‘results’) has also come to represent for some a top-down, target-driven, performance culture that devalues and degrades the relational nature of youth work, and the agency of the young people themselves. Alongside the cuts to youth budgets, this culture is blamed for the shrinking space given to youth work across the country.
Some speakers at a recent event organised by the Centre for Youth Impact asserted that the outcomes-led approach had no place in youth work – the work itself was all. One contributor described it as the three ‘H’s – ‘Heart’ to feel, ‘Head’ to understand, and ‘Hands’ to offer help. Talk of which outcomes you might achieve with the three ‘H’s was criticised as reductive and allowing the young person no autonomy in the process.
At Impetus-PEF we are committed to supporting organisations that rely on building a strong relationship with young beneficiaries. But we don’t want to help them simply to exist and do the work year after year. We want them to constantly challenge themselves to become more effective, helping more of the young people they serve to achieve things that can be transformative for them. The hearts, heads, and hands of their frontline staff are the only tools we, and they, have to improve young people’s lives – but if we don’t find out whether they are actually making young people’s lives better, we are accepting that they may be doing nothing positive, or making things worse, and doing nothing about it. This seems like too large a risk to take with scarce resources, and with young people themselves.
The charities that we partner with work to outcomes, and we help them do this through our Driving Impact programme. These outcomes are identified based partly on what the evidence indicates is likely to lead to well-being, independence, and prosperity over a lifetime, and partly on what the charities feel young people need and want, drawing on their experience of working with them. As an organisation, we work to support employment and education outcomes for low-income young people – but they are not government-approved, or picked off a shelf. They are what all the staff, including those at the frontline, want to be accountable for achieving for young people.
These outcomes are used, daily, to guide the work of the frontline staff with young people. They record what they do with the young people, and what short-term outcomes they’re reaching, or not. They discuss progress, challenges, and problems with their colleagues and managers, and come up with ways to add in extra resource or try something different if they can see they’re not helping a young person as they thought they could. This is ‘outcomes in action’ – setting yourself a goal, holding yourself accountable for achieving it, and sometimes changing what you do in real-time to adapt to the realities of working with a particular young person, with a particular reality, who will have other goals alongside yours.
This is no threat to youth work – though it is a challenge to any worker who thinks they do not need to critically examine the results of their professional judgement, reflect on this, and be accountable for this to their beneficiaries and colleagues. It is crucial that those of us within the sector supporting the use of outcomes do not end up being mistaken for proponents of the government’s record, to date, on outcomes-based commissioning, or funding of the youth sector more generally. While government has a responsibility to define the outcomes it will prioritise and resource, it is evident that it isn’t yet a skilled commissioner of outcomes. This is not surprising given the relative newness of the approach, and the many pitfalls to which it is vulnerable – unrealistic pricing, perverse incentives, excessive risk for providers, and political pressure for quick wins. We can support government to become better at outcomes commissioning while at the same time criticising ineffective and harmful commissioning and funding when we see it.
But this doesn’t mean organisations working with young people get to shrug off the ‘outcomes-led approach’ and declare it fatally corrupted. Working to outcomes means committing to young people that you won’t give up on them, and making it possible for them, and others, to hold you to account. It’s the best way to keep agendas that don’t put young people first away from youth work – and it’s how to show government what really matters for young people, and how we can get them there.
Originally published on the Centre for Youth Impact blog.