Do you know what an outcome is? That’s not meant to be a rude question, but if you were given a long list of the information that your organisation collects from all the people it helps, would you be able to identify what’s an activity and what’s an outcome?

It’s interesting that whilst there is a great deal of discussion about commissioning for outcomes there frequently isn’t a shared understanding about what an outcome actually is. It’s also interesting that whilst there is a great deal of enthusiasm from organisations to demonstrate how effective they are they frequently  can only demonstrate, with confidence, how many people they’ve seen.

This lack of distinction between activity and outcome isn’t peculiar to the organisations that provide services. With the organisations we work with we frequently see confusion reflected in contracts and performance monitoring required by commissioning bodies. In many cases we see activities that commissioners would like to see delivered written into contracts as outcomes purely because the delivery would be an outcome for the commissioner. This ignores whether the provision of that service has any impact on the individuals they are aimed at.

We think much of this confusion could be avoided if organisations and commissioners adopted a simple definition of what an outcome is. Our definition is:-

“The change that has happened to an individual”

This is often an uncomfortable definition for an organisation to adopt. It’s not a measure of the organisation, it’s not a measure of what you have done, it’s a measure of what has happened to the individual you work with.

In the course of working with organisations we try and unpick what is an activity and what is an outcome. Measuring activity is key to help you identify your costs but it is only when you can measure the change that occurs with the people you work with that you can prove you are effective.

Try looking through the information you collect from the people you work with. What proportion of that information is basic facts about the client such as name, address, demographics? What proportion is what you have done with them, the number of times you’ve seen them, what sort of service they required, how many times they didn’t turn up? What proportion measures the change that has happened to a client through their contact with you?

If you are not collecting anything in last category then you are not collecting outcomes.

Making the distinction between the different types of information you collect from clients is the first step towards figuring out why you collect information. Do you know with confidence what will happen to all the information you collect? We believe that generally organisations collect too much information about clients. We have tips on how to reduce the information burden but we’ll save that for another blog post.