more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Let’s not ‘make the most’ of Payment by Results

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

There’s a lot of talk in the UK voluntary sector about Payment by Results funding and what it means for our work. While there is a certain amount of criticism of this approach to allocating government money, there seems to be a strong view that we should still ‘make the most of it.’  But doing so would be a failure to our organisations, staff and critically, those we support. This is why I’m saying “No” to PbR.

Dia del Nino happy boy
Not a happy blog. But this boy sure is. I thought you’d like him better than a  generic PbR-themed image.

Payment by Results is not just an imperfect system, with flaws like any other. As a way of distributing public money, it really falls afoul of every indicator of accountable spending and quality public service:

  • It emphasises action over impact
    Even Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently admitted this, after a GP told him, “Payment by results doesn’t separate results from activity,” highlighting a fundamental flaw of a system that pretends it can measure impact, by measuring ‘the actions that we think lead to the impact.’ The result, as with target-based funding before it, is that in order to maintain funding, funded organisations have to make sure that ‘they do enough stuff,’ rather than making sure they do it well.
  • It encourages manipulation and ‘gaming’ of its own criteria
    When salaries and costs become directly linked to being able to demonstrate particular numeric achievements, it shouldn’t be surprising that people start finding ways – with varying degrees of honesty – to demonstrate those numbers. This is an example of the kind of system that breeds the very behaviours that it claims to avoid, bringing out dishonest and manipulative tendencies in those who didn’t previously show them.
  • It undermines frontline workers’ ability to respond flexibly to complex situations
    The same doctor who called out Jeremy Hunt over PbR’s emphasis on producing activity rather than results, also said “We don’t have the flexibility to bring about the change we need.” This highlights that if, receiving money you have already done the work for (and effectively spent), is contingent upon certain pre-defined criteria, you simply don’t have the choice to put your efforts into something else, no matter how critical it may be. PbR takes away workers’ and organisations’ ability to make judgements about particular cases or situations that may require putting effort into something that they aren’t being measured against. It creates machines that treat every situation with the same ‘objectivism’ that ignores the differences between any two people or situations.
  • It crowds out smaller organisations, leaving only large scale providers
    By making an organisation wait until it has finished (and ‘proven’ that it has finished) its work in order to receive compensation, most organisations will be unable to compete with the large reserves of large-scale private providers. This means that contracts will continue to go to a few large-scale, for-profit, scandal-plagued businesses (SERCO, A4E, etc) and smaller community organisations will have no way of bringing their local knowledge and experience of local issues to play for the people in their area.

In brief, it makes it harder to know if good services are being delivered and if money is being spent effectively, while encouraging worse results on both fronts. This is why PbR needs to be scrapped, not ‘made the most of.’ We owe that to everyone who relies on public and voluntary sector services, and who will see those services turn into box-ticking exercises if we keep our collective mouth shut on this one.

If you agree, please add your name to the “Say No To PbR” declaration and encourage others you know to do the same!

PS – If you’re thinking, “yeah, sure, but what do you replace it with?” I’ve written a bit about an alternative approach here.

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Bosses shouldn’t be afraid of being tougher on misguided consultants

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

I got pretty worked-up when I read Gill Taylor’s recent piece in Third Sector, arguing that managers ‘treat staff too nicely.’  But when I calmed down, I realised that Taylor’s analysis makes perfect sense within a few of our organisations’ most widespread, but ultimately incorrect, assumptions about people and management. If we believe the worst of our fellow colleagues, it really is time we got tougher on them!

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor, via Third Sector

Ultimately, there is a negative view of humanity at play here – people need to be controlled to avoid bad things happening. But there’s more to it. Here are three issues that underpin Taylor’s thinking:

1. The relationship between more and less senior staff is like the relationship between a parent and a young child.
While I could pick apart the issues with applying these attitudes to parenting, think of the traditional model: ‘I know best, listen to me, you’ll be alright, kid!’
This is the first assumption that Taylor – and most of our organisations – go wrong on. Management is one skill-set; counselling those who’ve experienced abuse, or running training courses, or working with youth on the street are others. Management is not ‘superior’ to other forms of work, even if our organisations have built this assumption into their structures, taking people out of jobs they do well, and making them become managers as their only hope of career progression.
If managers are superior to others, the patronising attitude outlined above makes perfect sense. This is what leads Taylor to say things like, “Treating staff too nicely isn’t necessarily good for them,” which can only conjure memories of a 1950s doctor telling a new mother ‘if you give them too much love, they’ll become spoilt!’

2. Problems are questions of fault, and the fault always trickles down the organisational ladder
When someone acts out, when an event doesn’t go to plan, when conflicts erupt at the office, organisational culture tends to scapegoat someone as ‘the cause’ of whatever bad thing happened. Rather than really try to understand the nuance of why an event failed (Were there other events on the same day? Were there unexpected cancellations? Did we know who we were pitching it to?), or why someone hasn’t been doing their job (Were they being adequately supported? Do they have issues outside of the office that are affecting their work? Are they being bullied?), many organisations find it far easier to nail someone with the blame. The last question that most organisations seem prepared to ask about troublesome employees, is ‘why did several of us think this person should be hired?’ Managers are the reason every employee is in an organisation, so perhaps asking themselves what made the person seem employable and how they could support the qualities that led to their hire, might be a good place to start when problems arise.

3. Compliance creates accountability
If we believe points 1 and 2, compliance (or ‘getting tough’) seems like a natural response. As a manager, you are superior to your staff and when something goes wrong, it is clearly that member of staff’s fault, therefore, how can you force them into being better employees?
But like a building built on a foundation of quicksand, this third assumption also crumbles under its own weight.
Compliance offers us the allusion of accountability, but trusting people and supporting them when they need it usually gives us the real thing.
Compliance measures that try to force people to prove they’re not screwing the organisation over (like so many sign-off processes and staff evaluations), often create barriers to meaningful contribution, and encourage the very behaviour they aim to avoid.
But if we assume that people who work in social change organisations want to do the right thing, the vast majority of the time, we might find that they do it. We can address the exceptions when they arise, rather than creating structures that assume the worst of all our staff, as so many policies imply, just by existing.

Ultimately, Gill Taylor and the many who continue the tradition started by an American Industrialist of the same last name (Fredrick Winslow, for the record), have a lot to answer for. Their assumptions and ‘solutions’ are what have made our organisations so much less like people, creating hostile, adversarial relationships, where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

While my gut response is reflected in my flip on the original article’s title, I hope that through conversation and experience, consultants like Taylor can see the error of their ways and try starting their work from an assumption of human decency.

But failing that, let’s stop giving them our business or the space to promote themselves, shall we?

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Give trust, get accountability

Monday, October 8th, 2012

In the last post, Paul Barasi took the recent government move towards ‘Payment by Results’ funding to task. Today we introduce a radical alternative means of achieving funding accountability: Trust!

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

Kittens: Better than 'Payment by Results'

‘Payment by Results’ is the UK government’s latest attempt to achieve greater accountability with how public money is spent. Or so they say.

In practice, they’ve decided to apply it only to certain questionable public services, but as Paul pointed out the other week, the Olympics, Trident, and recent wars will not be held to the same standards of ‘we pay you when you have delivered what you said you would.’

David Boyle’s powerful paper against the approach, demonstrates that it poses the very same problems as ‘target-based funding,’ encouraging ‘gaming’ of the system to the detriment of all involved. You lose honesty, you lose learning, and you lose the accountability the whole system was created for.

We’ve long used numbers as a replacement for trust – ‘you said you would do ‘x’ but how can I know you did it?’ By measuring it!

Which is kinda ok for some tasks, but in many others – let’s say you’re trying to measure ‘improved wellbeing’ – there is an infinite number of ways you can fiddle the definitions to make sure your counting ‘succeeds.’

But beyond this, even if the definitions were fixed (presumably by government, but by anyone, really) they would immediately fall afoul of the first rule of complexity: things change. Therefore, as Paul wrote in relation to women feeling safer walking around their council estate in at night, fixed aims – whether as ‘targets’ or ‘results’ – will fail to take into account many of the most important impacts of a project, because they weren’t specifically what the funding was meant to achieve. And thus their value is lost on the funding systems that help enable them.

Learning to trust each other again

So what’s the alternative? You can never sew up all the loopholes and opportunities to ‘game’ a system to someone’s advantage, so let’s go back to the drawing board and give ‘trust’ the opportunity to reclaim the space ‘numbers’ stole from it, way back when…

We don’t usually associate trust and money, but a lot of people have begun experimenting with the combination lately, as the shortcomings of compliance-based accountability are gradually becoming clear. Here are a few anecdotes:

In 2010 I met Paul Story in Edinburgh – an author who had maxed-out his credit card printing 10,000 copies of his novel, Dreamwords: The Honesty Edition. His business model? Give the books to people, in the streets, in bookstores, at events, with a request to a) pay for the book online if they liked it, or b) pass it along to someone they think might enjoy it, asking them to pay for it if they liked it. Two years on he’s just published part two of his series…

Also in 2010, Toronto Star journalist Jim Rankin gave five prepaid credit cards worth $50-$75 to five different homeless people, encouraging them to get what they needed. Two were returned to him, partly used; one was never used or returned; one was stolen; and one was partially used, but never returned. For the people with maybe the most reason to exploit Rankin’s generosity, these seem like pretty good results. Imagine the costs that could be saved by adapting certain elements of organisational homelessness service provision along similar lines?

The other day I discovered Mgnetic Music, who pride themselves on a business model for independent musicians that means not having to “sue your fans to make money from your music!” Their approach? Let people download your music and pay for it if they want to. If they like it, they might pay you. If they don’t pay, you still have a new fan who will likely support and promote you in other ways. If they don’t like it, they won’t pay and wouldn’t have otherwise. Let them make the choice – it’s a lot less hassle for you, as a musician!

Now these are small and far from perfect examples, but our current systems can only pretend to be working by digging their heads deeper into the sands of compliance measures that simply allow abuses to be more thoroughly hidden in endless numbers.

Trust-based funding?

A while back, Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista and I started exploring ‘Trust-based funding.’ While it never got past an initial conversation with a funder and another with a law firm working on public sector commissioning processes, we began to imagine it what it might look like at the different stages of the grant process:

‘What we want to support’ (Guidance)

  • Providing very loose definitions, perhaps starting from a ‘these are the things we definitely DO NOT want to fund’ perspective to weed-out those who are absolutely unqualified, without boxing those who might be qualified into terms they don’t fit

‘What you want to achieve’ (Application)

  • Jointly-developing means of demonstrating impact, to give funded groups a real sense of ownership over the process and a sense of responsibility to themselves, as well as those funding them
  • Not creating any direct relationship between what is stated initially and what is expected later, leaving room for changes and on-the-ground learning, as the most effective projects tend to do, but often have to hide from those funding them

‘What you are delivering’ (Delivery)

  • Recognising that funders and recipients are working towards the same goals and must hold each other to account throughout the process, helping create a relationship in which ‘funding’ and ‘delivery’ are seen as two equal parts of a joint-process, where both parties can constructively challenge each other, without retribution
  • Trusting people who have been through an appropriate application process to do what they say they will with the money they are given, offering support and connections, rather than oversight and one-way accountability

‘What we have achieved together’ (Evaluation)

  • Emphasising the qualitative impact of services, shifting the inclination from ‘box-ticking’ and ‘target-chasing’ by both parties
  • Assuming that recipients will spend their money appropriately, and asking them to provide the story of their work in whatever ways they feel best conveys its full breadth
  • Weighting valuable, but unexpected/unplanned outcomes on par with predetermined ones

We also added a further stage:

‘How those we support are better prepared for the future’ (Potential)

  • Ensuring that at the end of the funding period, recipients are better placed to continue doing good work, viewing the process as developmental, rather than simply about the fixed funding period

Putting it to work

What’s above is barely a skeleton of an approach, but no matter how much work we put into it, someone putting it into practice is going to have to stick their neck out if it is going to get a fair hearing.

Paul, Veena and I have put forward an idea, with a tiny bit of meat on the bones, but now we’d like to turn it over to you.
In this spirit of the guidance stage above, what we DON’T want is simply highlighting the things that could go wrong. These are largely no-brainers. The trust approach accepts that ‘things inevitably go wrong’ in any system, and with that in mind it is not worth perpetually trying to mitigate against them, by dragging down all the honest people to a ‘lowest common denominator’ compliance model.

So here’s the question for you:

What would make the idea we’ve outlined above BETTER than it currently is?

Looking forward to seeing where you might take this…

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Five reasons – in no particular order – why hierarchy sucks

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

While writing a piece for the book on just this subject, I realised I’d never put all the things I don’t like about hierarchy in one clear place… nor seen it done succinctly elsewhere. So here’s my non-comprehensive polemic on why I think hierarchy is about the worst default setting we could pick for our organisations…

Chichen Itza
FACT: Organisations that build pyramids are less resilient than their counterparts

Few concepts are as ingrained in our institutions as that of hierarchy. We assume that someone will have final say, that we always report to someone, that someone should be earning more than someone else…

But when it comes down to it, hierarchy doesn’t sit that well with the core values of most progressive people, even if we practice it in countless settings on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t think we need to accept it as a ‘necessary evil’, undermining our lived visions of the world any more. But that’s what the book’s about. Here’s why hierarchy sucks:

It assumes the worst of people, and thus is likely to foster the worst in them

From the basic premise of having to ‘start at the bottom and work your way up’, hierarchy doesn’t give any of us the credit to be able to do the amazing things that people constantly demonstrate the ability to do, irrespective of where they might fall on an organisational chart.

More practically though, hierarchy denies us the autonomy to use our judgment and figure things out in our own ways.

Formalising accountability – especially when it only flows in one direction – breaks down trust, because it assumes we won’t be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

If we can’t be honest with each other, this is what we need to look at understanding, rather than creating structures that make it harder to develop a shared sense of collective accountability for what we do.

It creates power dynamics that foster dishonesty and poor information sharing/coordination/learning

By centralising power and control, you distribute the desire for power and control. When power and control are more evenly shared, there is less reason for most people to want more of it.

Everyone needs to make themselves look better than someone else, if they want to progress their career, improve their income, etc. The hierarchy pits individual interest, against the shared/collective interest, which can’t be a good thing for any organisation that hopes to have some kind of future.

It expects its leaders to be superheroes

It elevates individuals to positions in which the unattainable is expected of them. Because their job title is ‘x’, they are expected to do ‘y’… A promotion to ‘w’ means they are expected to do ‘y+1’… which makes sense… until it doesn’t.

Many argue that the people in leadership positions of massive multinational institutions can in no meaningful way know enough about their organisation to justify the difference between their salaries and the salaries of those below them. The rises follow a linear progression, but have no grounding in practical reality. At a certain stage ‘y+1’ becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back, surpassing human ability, or the number of hours in a day, and becoming inherently unachievable. But we pretend this isn’t the case, and all the ‘failed’ leaders have failed due to their own shortcomings, not something inherent to our expectations of them.

It pretends we live in a linear and controllable world that only exists as a Fordian fantasy, wasting heaps of time

Strategic planning suggests that if you get the correct executives in an expensive enough room for an extended period of time, you will be able to predict the future.

Important people (according to the hierarchy) spend a great deal of time together in organisations, writing documents which declare, in spite of everything outside their walls: ‘A will lead to B will lead to C’.

Additionally, they write further documents to detail how others will ensure that A will lead to B will lead to C.

And then something unexpected happens – as it invariably does – and all their hard work is at best swept aside, and at worse, followed to a T, in spite of a radically changed reality.

When reality strikes, it should make crystal clear that those in the institution who are receiving the largest proportionate amount of its resources, do not have a crystal ball than can plan for any eventuality. By nature of having been elevated to a certain plateau, these individuals have not achieved a superhuman ability to understand all the parts of a complex system.

It denies the centrality of context, assuming that the best decisions can be made from outside the contexts they will be applied in

If we think the best decisions can be made by the people furthest away from their application, we’ve got another thing coming…

The theory that enough information will ‘trickle-up’, from-street-to-suite, to give those who have never experienced the situations they are making decisions for, enough understanding to do a good job, is basically nuts and is not remotely grounded in the experiences of the real world, from sector-to-sector.

Given what we know about how information moves through hierarchical systems (see the first two points), we can’t really believe such systems provide the stuff of good decision making, can we?

Good decisions must be grounded in the realities they will apply to. This is also why ‘scaling up’ of good local ideas almost never works; context is everything, and replacing particular situations and relationships with others and expecting the results to be the same, only makes sense if you are far enough from the ground, for the critical details to have become invisible.

…What have I missed? What is unfair generalisation? What am I misattributing blame for?

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Celebrating Failure

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, AdmittingFailure.com encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?

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There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, AdmittingFailure.com. It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” – AdmittingFailure.com

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating WeScrewedUp.com – a site based on the same principles as AdmittingFailure.com, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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The Growing Anatomy of a Human Institution v0.1

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

growing human institutions‘Human institutions’ are groups that have come together in significant numbers for a common social purpose and maintained a collective focus on the human relationships (within and beyond their limits) that have helped them to flourish. Most of the institutions we know – whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors – seem to have buried these relationships under an array of forms, policies, chains-of-command, jargon and other often-counter-productive formalities, claiming such structures are needed to enable growth. Too many have lost track of the ways people – unmitigated by institutions – interact amongst each other, inadvertently pushing away those less-familiar or comfortable with such structures and preventing new ideas from emerging within their ranks.

Some, however, have managed to strike the delicate balance between growth (financial, geographic-reach and otherwise) and the combined value, passion and diversity of the people that make them up.

This blog is an ongoing attempt to capture some of the recurring themes which seem to be at the core of organisations that have been able to maintain their human element, while still expanding their staff, their income or their remit.

Through the contributions of all and any who are concerned with ensuring the institutions affecting our lives are innovative, adaptable and inclusive, this document will expand on the basis of your feedback and get regularly re-posted in its latest incarnations, gradually taking on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’…

Here are the first 5 traits of a human institution I’ve chosen to highlight:

1. Flexibility
A rule is only as useful as the willingness that exists to break it, when needed. Sadly, this sentiment is often lost in organisations. The tendency to standardise everything – often benevolently, in the name of equal opportunities and fairness – creates a system that seems to prevent anyone having any advantages over anyone else, but which ends-up excluding people on the basis of its rigidity and the inevitable diversity of potential users’ circumstances.

Though rules are invariably created for good reasons, they all have their limitations. Human institutions recognise these limitations and ensure their staff are empowered to have significant flexibility to adapt to peoples’ circumstances as needed, even if that sometimes means cutting against standard protocols.

2. Mutual trust-based accountability
Accountability is far too often a one-way process that is tied to existing power-dynamics (between funders and funded groups; managers and staff, etc) which seem to assume the worst of the people told to prove their worth. Micromanagement attempts to prevent any method someone could imagine to cheat a system. As more regulations are imposed, people’s ability to work/deliver objectives is hindered by the time spent justifying how their time is spent. So they find alternative (sometimes less-ethical means) of satisfying those imposing these regulations… and no one wins.
Alternatively, being trusted gives people a strong sense of ownership and responsibility over a situation. As does a power shift that allows those traditionally held to account, to also hold their counterparts to account simultaneously. In strong human relationships (the kind that provide the greatest results, in both personal and professional settings), accountability is both trust-based and mutual. In human institutions this is also the case.

3. Autonomy
Linked to the concept of ‘trust’, is that of autonomy. The assumed practice of hierarchical management structures makes it far more difficult in most organisations for people to pursue creative and new ideas. Though a balance must be struck to achieve organisational objectives, rarely is the space given for staff to work autonomously, towards the organisation’s broader aims, but along a newly-emerging path.

Like with trust, those who feel they have room to determine their direction, often give more than those who have their direction pre-determined by someone with superior rank. Broad organisational objectives give staff more space to work to their strengths, than narrowly-defined outputs and outcomes which too often ignore the involved individuals’ passions and abilities.

4. Experiential diversity
Diversity is important from more than an equal opportunities perspective, and applies to organisations beyond the more-easily measurable differences of race, gender, religion, etc. Having an experientially diverse staff and volunteer team (of individuals who have taken different paths to ending up at your organisation) is crucial to a human institution in two other significant ways:

1) To give newcomers approaching the organisations from the outside, the sense that both people like them and a range of different people are welcome and accepted;
2) To provide a greater range of opinions and internal debate, than a group of people who have had very similar experiences in life tend to, encouraging new ways of working.

As James Surowiecki explains in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, even if a minority opinion in a group proves incorrect, “the confrontation with a dissenting view, logically enough, forces the majority to interrogate its own positions more thoroughly.” This has in itself, been found to improve decision making processes in human institutions.

5. Plain communications
The language we use to communicate and promote our work has huge consequences for the people who take it in. Many organisations seem all-too-keen to create new words and phrases and see if they can push them into circulation, without recognising that each additional piece of jargon can serve to push away someone not already ‘in the know’. Human institutions realise that effectively communicating messages and ideas is more about simplicity, than it is about complexity.

If you’re interested in discovering what you can do to create a human institution in your workplace or organisation, register for our new 1/2-day workshop in London, ‘Seeds to Grow a Human Institution’!
Register for Seeds to Grow a Human Institution in London, United Kingdom  on Eventbrite

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Measuring water with a ruler

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Significant numbers of voluntary organisations and think-tanks have been singing from government’s hymn sheet in recent years, demanding that civil society organisations prove  their value for the funding they receive by submitting to constantly more rigorous methods of monitoring and evaluation.  The chorus has become so loud that it is increasingly difficult for those who challenge its dominant orthodoxy to be heard, even when it is apparent that these methods are often equivalent to trying to measure the water in the ocean with a ruler.

Before going further, I want to stress that I think accountability in civil society is good; I think that most of the methods we use for supposedly achieving it, however, are not.

My latest thinking on this comes from a brief piece in Third Sector and an editorial in the Guardian about a YouGov/New Philanthropy Capital survey that suggests significant support for a ‘grading system’ for charities, to demonstrate how effective a particular organisation has been in achieving its aims.

Let’s put independence from the state and overall drops in sector-income aside for a moment and look at some of the ways accountability is currently seen by most funding bodies – governmental and non-governmental alike – in predicting what said grading system might look like…

The problem with grant funding accountability

First, let’s look at funding applications as the first institutional process of evaluating an organisation.  We need to acknowledge that the text of a funding application is a ‘theory of change’ – we (as applicants) believe if we deliver a, b and c (measurables), we will achieve x, y and z (social outcomes).  There is no way to know (beyond a well-educated guess) that delivering a series of events, interventions, support sessions, or other outputs, will definitively lead to the change we say it will.  There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this uncertainty, but standard funding formulas suggest we (as organisations) claim to know our actions will create pre-determined impacts, even if this is only a possibility.  This is the fundamentally flawed premise on which most funding accountability is based: it treats complex human and social problems as complicated ones with both fixed variables and predictable answers.

“According to …Glouberman and …Zimmerman, systems can be understood as being simple, complicated, complex. Simple problems… may encompass some basic issues of technique and terminology, but once these are mastered, following the “recipe” carries with it a very high assurance of success. Complicated problems, like sending a rocket to the moon, are different. Their complicated nature is often related not only to the scale of a problem…, but also to issues of coordination or specialised expertise. However, rockets are similar to each other and because of this following one success there can be a relatively high degree of certainty of outcome repetition. In contrast complex systems are based on relationships, and their properties of self-organisation, interconnectedness and evolution. Research into complex systems demonstrates that they cannot be understood solely by simple or complicated approaches to evidence, policy, planning and management. The metaphor that Glouberman and Zimmerman use for complex systems is like raising a child. Formulae have limited application. Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next. Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success. Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual. A number of interventions can be expected to fail as a matter of course. Uncertainty of the outcome remains. You cannot separate the parts from the whole.”

…But if we ignore for a minute that it is impossible to apply recipe-modelled approaches to complex social change, let’s look at the next stage of the process: the tenuous correlation between outputs and impact.  Most funders will suggest that once the deliverables of our funding have been determined (x events, x hours of support, x people served, etc.), that achieving those deliverables equates to success (or not achieving them equates to the failure).  This may not reflect the bigger picture.  Some funders will be more flexible in determining the actual relationship between output and outcome, but there is still often worry on the part of a funded organisation that they will lose the money they need to keep delivering, if the numbers don’t add up.  And as everyone who has worked under such pressures knows, if your work is dependent on making numbers add-up, you’ll make sure those numbers add up!  This may mean ‘double-counting’ events which are funded by other funders, it may mean counting different parts of a service accessed by the same person as different outputs… we have plenty of creative ways of doing these things, and really, who can blame us?  If the money we need to keep doing something with positive social value is contingent on forms that don’t reflect that value, what would be the greater crime: some loosely-adjusted paperwork, or a vital service shut-down due to an overly-rigid system?

How much flexibility is needed?

Let’s look at a concrete example: if you receive a grant to deliver counselling services to 150 children who are victims of bullying in one-year, you will have a fixed number of hours you can dedicate to each child.  However, you may find that a particular group of children have higher needs, meaning that the scope and ongoing nature of their problems will require considerably more effort than your team have allotted them.  Now some funders will recognise the need for flexibility in such a situation, but this is usually a question of how many degrees they are willing to shift.  The qualitative impact of supporting 50 kids through a particularly difficult time may be far more socially valuable than providing basic support for the full-150 pre-determined total.  And for a child in a difficult scenario, 3 hours of support for every hour provided to a less-vulnerable child would not be an unexpected ratio.  Yet, from many funders’ perspectives, this is still a 67% margin of error, and likely inexcusable from a traditional ‘accountability’ perspective.

The cynics of my cynicism might say: “well, this organisation just needs to quantify the additional impact of the 3:1 support ratio provided to the most vulnerable children served, and it will justify their reduced output.”  But think about the complexity of measuring such an impact – the differences that inevitably exist between different children’s developmental progress, the amount of at-home support experienced by some but not others, any other additional circumstances that might make some children’s experiences of bullying more traumatic… Not to mention the additional time that would need to be spent by staff attempting to collect the data that would rationalise this reallocation of funds, and how that would likely be pulling them away from delivering services they were funded to deliver in the first place.

…And if grant funding is not difficult enough, target-based government contracting methods just accentuate all of the worst aspects of this process, expecting, almost without exception, numbers to be achieved, on the dubious premise that ‘numbers = impact’.

The bigger risk…

The bigger risk, from my perspective, lies in the almost inherent bias of asking organisations to provide certain types of information as evidence of their impact, that are clearly more-accessible to larger charities, with dedicated research staff and knowledge of public data retrieval, than they are to the vast majority of voluntary and community groups who will be held to the same measures.

As has always been the case, there will be organisations whose greatest skills are in manipulating data, writing in an appropriate style and knowing how to speak to the right power-brokers.  These groups will invariably rank well in a system that plays to all of these strengths, regardless of their actual quality of work.  If a charity grading system is implemented in the ways it seems likely it would be, it will not be grading effectiveness, but, like so many other practiced measures of social value, will actually be measuring an organisation’s ability to effectively handle paperwork and bureaucracy.

My radical concept for improved accountability? Trust.

Too much of what goes on in the name of accountability is an ongoing assumption of organisational guilt, until innocence can be determined by those making the judgment in the first place.  A concept that has been central to historical ideas of accountability – trust – has been all-but-forgotten in the current culture of market-dominated methods of measurement in the social sphere.

What if funders were to take a more personally motivated attempt to ‘get to know’ their recipients?  What if a significant part of the time spent on paperwork, was spent working with grant recipients to find out how they felt they knew they had achieved impact in their work?  What if this meant funders being sent a video of a recent street dance performance, featuring interviews with the participants?  What if it meant an invitation to attend a presentation and board meeting of the organisation in question?  What if it meant direct contact between grant administrators and those who had received services as a result of their funding?

Personal interactions (as opposed to institutional ones, such as form letters and other generic communications) can fundamentally change the dynamics between a funder and those who receive funding.  Just as most of us are more likely to pay back money we have borrowed from a friend on time, than we are if we borrowed it from a credit card company (penalties aside), the likelihood of improved accountability if a relationship is developed between funder and recipient works along similar lines.  Trust is a powerful motivating force; more so even than the ongoing sense of worry that tends to characterise most funding relationships, from the recipient’s perspective.

A mandatory grading system would, by its very nature, violate any notion of trust-based accountability.  If organisations were forced to be graded, just like with our creatively-defined output measures described earlier, many would find (questionable) ways to check the necessary performance indicator boxes, diverting valuable attention away from actually improving their performance.

A voluntary grading system that organisations could opt-in to (with different types of performance indicators reflecting different conceptions of performance), on the other hand, could become a point of pride within the sector – something to aspire to.  Those who undertook it would have chosen to do so, increasing the odds of more honest and holistic measurement, with a more genuine desire to improve (than if they had been simply told by an authority figure that they ‘had to’).

I personally don’t believe there is a need for such a system at this point in time, but hopefully some of the discussions it sparks will begin to shift thinking across the sector of the ways in which we measure performance and gauge accountability more broadly.  If the threat of a heavy-handed imposition of grading is what it takes to realise how far we have allowed and encouraged trust to erode in our sector, than perhaps there is a silver lining to the NPC proposals.  If we are told that ‘trust is not going to cut it with the new government’, perhaps it is the relationship we aim to have with that government which we need to be questioning, before reverting to taking shots at each others’ integrity as organisations.

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