THE “OUTCOME FOCUS”: SCOTTISH REFLECTION

September 22, 2016

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Colin Mair, Chief Executive, The Improvement Service

Scotland has had an evolving outcome focus since 2003, and it has been central to public service reform and improvement since 2007.  “Outcome focus” is intimately linked to other ideas, “prevention”, “early intervention”, “reducing inequalities”, as all are about improving the chances in life, quality of life and wellbeing of the people and communities we serve.

That means thinking about all the factors that shape people’s lives and opportunities, and how public policy and public services can alter these factors to make lives better.  (In that sense macro-economic policy, fiscal policy and labour market strategy are as essential to an “outcome focus” as local public services.)  But it is also about engaging with people and communities as equals and supporting the outcomes they want to achieve in their lives.  The first learning point from Scotland is this: public services cannot “do” outcomes to people and they will only work better for communities if they learn to work better with communities.

A second key point is that people have outcomes, public services do not: at their best, they contribute to them.  This becomes a powerful argument for public service integration around people and place as no public service in isolation can shape outcomes.  However, if it stops at simply being a programme of public service integration, and does not empower and value communities, then the impact on improving outcomes is significantly reduced.  Big public services being better integrated should be a platform for empowering communities, not controlling them top down.

A third learning point is that it is almost impossible for public services to be empowering and enabling of communities if we have not empowered and enabled our own local staff.  It is not accidental that, after quite a long period of high level, strategic integration in Scotland, the focus has shifted to localisation right down to community level and empowering local staff to work together flexibly within communities.  The “place based” and “community asset based” approach has come to the fore.  “Localisation” cannot wish away all the pressures and tensions arising from globalisation, a top down UK government system and financial constraint, but it can create the space for innovation.  Leadership of outcomes is in big part being creatively “bottom up” in a very top down world.  We need to revise where we think “leadership” is best located in our public services and develop and invest in frontline leadership talent.

A fourth learning point is that the “silo” culture of public services is powerful and tenacious and getting truly to an outcome focus is a long term project.  Initially, services claim “their” outcomes and rebuild silos in a new way.  All I would say is that getting people talking outcomes over time gets them thinking outcomes, and that creates discontent and challenge of existing structures and arrangements.  It also creates a “next generation” who have only every worked within an emphasis on outcomes and that is very powerful.  Outcome talk often seems pious and self-evident (of course we would prefer a “healthier” and “smarter” Scotland to a “sicker”, “thicker” Scotland) but it usefully gives hostages to fortune and creates lines of challenge that themselves comes transformative over time.  The movement in Scotland from a general focus on improving outcomes to a hard focus on reducing inequalities was driven by having an outcome agenda in the first place that focused the embedded unfairness of the very different outcomes experienced by different communities in Scotland.

My final thought is that an outcome approach, and all the policy and metrics that go with it, mobilises and focuses discontent with how our society is doing and this is good.  Scotland has recently placed a statutory duty on all public authorities to improve outcomes and reduce inequality of outcomes and a duty to work together to do so. 10 years in this reflects a higher level discontent with the overall level of progress, and variation in progress across Scotland (even though substantial progress on outcomes and reducing inequalities has occurred).  10 years ago we did not even know how to measure this: now we do and it drives dissatisfaction and change.  An outcome approach is not an easy gig.