The Value of Outputs in Outcomes-Oriented Work

The social services sector is transitioning from a focus on ‘outputs’ measuring activity levels towards ‘outcomes’ measuring life impacts. Third Sector advises public agencies seeking to use the tools at their disposal, such as procurement, policy, and data, to better align with long-term success for their communities. While we want success to be defined in terms of outcomes and encourage this evolution of the field, we still see value in assessing outputs for several reasons.

1. Process outputs provide motivation to achieve broader goals

Setting and achieving intermittent process metrics is important to creating lasting change. Take a project in California, where an agency we work with is testing a new peer coaching model for individuals reentering their communities after incarceration. Coaches work with their clients to improve long-term outcomes in employment, mental health, and other areas in life. An important step in the process is setting intermediate goals like enrolling in a skills-training class or obtaining a driver’s license. These activities could be classified as outputs, yet accomplishing them is critical in motivating clients on the path of reentry.

The same idea can be extrapolated to the program level. This peer coaching model described is undergoing a rigorous evaluation to assess multi-year impacts on recidivism. Program innovation is challenging work, especially when funding is contingent upon success that is determined years in the future. The long-term nature of such projects makes celebrating the small wins throughout all the more important!

2. Activity outputs tell us how efficiently outcomes are generated

Outputs measuring activity levels can shed light on organizational and programmatic health. The goal of a project we have with a state Department of Social Services is to make a workforce development program more outcomes-oriented, leading to better employment results for low-income parents. We spent the first phase of the project researching why a notable portion of funding is currently being left on the table. While not directly related to client employment outcomes, this output (money unspent) provided insight into efficiency of the input (allocated funding).

Take a housing example as another illustration. While the success of a homeless shelter in promoting housing stability is more than just service utilization, tracking data on individuals served or program referrals is valuable in understanding the building blocks of success. Having a good gauge on activity levels also helps providers to identify whether they are serving their intended populations, as well as costs associated with delivering outcomes for more vulnerable communities.    

3. Correlated outputs can be substitutes for measuring elusive impacts

Output metrics can serve as proxies when cost or time precludes an evaluation of long-term impacts. With one county’s Office of Education, we are exploring the expansion of a program to prepare children from low-income families for kindergarten. Choosing outcome metrics consistent with lasting student achievement that are also trackable has proven to be a challenge. To balance rigor and practicality, the agency is exploring school attendance, grades, and other family stabilization indicators as proxies for future education and economic outcomes.

Another organization we work with provides legal aid to immigrants in the community. As their clients come up against specific legal charges related to immigration status, this agency measures success by tracking the number of cases in which a public defense attorney is assigned to a defendant (as history shows a solid track record of clients winning with attorneys). The organization is able to use a highly correlated metric to assess community benefits in a simple way.

As we change systems that convolute activity levels with social impact, the three considerations above remind us why outputs are still valuable for outcomes-oriented work.