Someone asked me recently which books have most influenced my thinking. I paused and then said: Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, Another Country, Becoming a Man, and Random Family. I also told them about Mark Friedman’s tremendous Trying Hard is Not Good Enough, a book that offers simple concepts, simply stated that stand to change the world.
In Trying Hard is Not Good Enough (and a companion book – Turning Curves), Mark Friedman describes the concept of results accountability. He observes that we pour billions of dollars into programs (many of which are hugely successful in changing their beneficiaries’ lives) and yet don’t see improvements to conditions of well-being for communities at large. He talks about the paradox that individual programs can meet their targets and have statistically significant evaluation results, while community-wide rates of kindergarten readiness, unintentional pregnancy, poverty, post-secondary completion, and literacy across communities don’t move.
Results accountability is a disciplined way of making decisions and acting upon them that can improve both the quality of life for entire communities and simultaneously improve the performance of individual programs. The process starts with a group of partners. With input from the community, partners identify what they want for every child, adult or family in their community. They imagine what the conditions would look or feel like, if they existed, and they figure out how to measure those conditions. They use data to assess how they are doing on the most important measures, and they identify any partners not already sitting at their table who have a role to play in doing better. They figure out what works to do better, moving quickly by prioritizing low- and no-cost fixes. Finally, they establish an action plan, identifying what needs to be done by each person in the room and by the group as a collective to improve the condition they selected. They go through a similar set of steps for each program represented, identifying a set of performance measures that allow programs to see how much they are doing, how well they are doing it, and – most importantly – if anyone is better off.
My role relates to training, data, and internal strategy implementation. For me, results accountability looks like this. At a programmatic level, I feel accountable to performance measures like:
How much? The percent of participants who participate in learning activities and – most importantly – who habitually use the capabilities that we meant to impart
How well? The number of partnerships that have dashboards that let them see how the population-level outcomes on which they focus are trending over time. The percent of internal organizational strategic objectives that are on track.
Is anyone better off? The number and percent of partnerships we support that are showing improvements in their outcome (e.g. kindergarten readiness, high school graduation)
At a population level, I celebrate with dozens of other partners the fact that, within our region, high school graduation is up eight percentage points for English Language Learners, three percentage points for minority students, and two percentage points for all students over a one-year period. At the same time, I feel personally accountable for the reality that, in the same region, the percentage of third-graders reading on grade level hasn’t budged over the last two years (though for third graders who come from low-income families and third-graders who are English Language Learners, there have been increases). The results accountability framework means that, when I see data like this, I work with my colleagues and our partners to figure out what I can do as an individual and as the leader of a team and what we can do as a collective, to “turn that curve.” There’s no finger pointing, and no shrugging of shoulders or statements of “I wish it were different.” Instead, we look critically at ourselves and our actions, and we adapt to do different work that stands to improve community conditions. That is the challenge and promise of results accountability.
I hope that you will join me in October at GIVE in dialogue about results accountability. In the meantime, you can learn more about a rigorous approach to Collective Impact in the Promise Partnership Regional Council’s second annual report. (United Way of Salt Lake coordinates and supports this cross-sector group of community leaders.) Let us know today if, in the meantime, you would like to start a conversation about aligning our considerable resources to achieve results that matter.