Results-Based Accountability: Communication is Key

By Susan S. DiMattia

Results-Based Accountability or RBA, sometimes also referred to as Outcomes-Based Accountability or OBA, is used to improve the performance of an organization’s programs or services to produce measurable change. RBA has many connotations, but here is defined as a data-driven decision-making process to get beyond talking about problems and take action to solve them. It begins with researching and identifying desired end results then creating prioritized actions to establish the best possible means to achieve those ends. One question asked during the process is “Are the customers of your products and services better off because of the quality and efficiency of your services?” It is a “cousin” to the Return on Investment (ROI) concept and encompasses elements of advocacy. On the surface, RBA may not seem much different from the traditional methods adapted by information professionals, but if there is substance enough to create some new ways of thinking, it’s worth considering. Regardless of whether a single method or a mix of concepts is employed, a strong communication plan is key.

Success Through Sharing Techniques

A perennial concern for information professionals in a variety of settings is how to prove to purse string holders the value of what we do and the expertise required to do it. The search for solutions to this dilemma has been a prominent factor in our discourse for as long as I can recall. Two events in my recent schedule converged to reinforce my personal conviction to the importance of listening to and learning from the techniques and experiences of people outside our professional network. Those in different branches of the information equation encounter many of the same value-related issues we do.

The first event was a workshop sponsored by a foundation that specializes in making grants to non-profit organizations, particularly in the arts and community services. The purpose of the workshop was to encourage organizations seeking funding from the foundation to use the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) techniques in writing grant applications. Many sections of the detailed application form were intended to prove to the grantor that their funds would be used effectively to produce significant outcomes. The term ROI was never mentioned in the lecture and handouts, but it was easy to see the parallels between the two concepts and to connect the concept of measurable accountability to an effort to enhance perceptions of the value of a product or service.

The second event was an invitational discussion on the topic of “The Future of Libraries” based on a research report issued by the Aspen Institute in October 2014 under the auspices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (www.aspeninstitute.org/publications) Conversations are being convened in many locations across the United States in order to gather ideas and data to inform the next iteration of planning for the future. Participants are librarians from many settings, educators, government officials, and other interested parties. Not surprisingly, their concerns were similar to those frequently expressed by information professionals in specialized settings: the need to show value and manage constant change; striving to know your community and working to understand and fulfill their needs — not just “pitch” your services; and diversifying to serve a variety of needs and expectations. One major point of the exercise was that we all can learn from the experiences of others. The problem in placing a value on library services is one of communication. Looking for solutions to that problem, according to the Aspen Institute research, is to move from a “transaction” mode of thinking to a “transformation” focus.

RBA in a Nutshell

The RBA workshop was based on the work of Mark Friedman of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His book, Trying Hard is Not Good Enough, is a companion to a DVD called Results Accountability Workshop. I offer them here for those who may want to explore the topic in more detail. Definitions of the RBA concept and some examples of its application can be found at http://resultsaccountability.com and at http://resultsleadership.org. Both RBA and OBA are described as “a disciplined way of thinking and taking action.” Friedman’s work is focused on social issues such as how communities can improve the lives of children, families, and communities, but several of the concepts can translate into use in other scenarios. RBA starts with ends — the differences you are trying to make — and works backward toward prioritized means. This framework of focus on desired results and how to arrive at them is applicable in both a social context and an information environment.

Three questions, or measures of how well a program or service is working (performance indicators), form the basis of the RBA concept, translated to an information centric environment:

  1. How much did we do? — How much service was provided, based on what criteria, arrived at after research?
  2. How well did we do it? Quality is tied to this second measure and will require a variety of survey instruments (online, phone, one-on-one interactions) in order to gauge accountability.
  3. Is anyone better off? Is the performance of our clients as they do their jobs made more efficient, effective and did they contribute to the organization’s bottom line because of our work? Who used our work, for what purpose, to what end? Only by communicating with them will we be able to measure our value to them in concepts we can communicate back to them as part of our value defense strategy.

Research is behind the step-by-step process to get to “action” quickly. The process is based on data, partnerships, transparency and other elements and is intended to challenge assumptions that may have been barriers to innovation in the past. Communication is a key element in the process of forecasting trends and future needs and expectations. As part of the discussion of the Aspen Institute study, a panel representing several stakeholders examined the question, “How has the library changed?” One participant referred to the dramatic transformation necessitated by rapid changes in technology. Successful libraries and librarians anticipated the changes and evolved to meet them, she suggested. When change is a constant challenge to a profession forging ahead to remain relevant, proactive responses become a required professional skill.

Communicating Effectively

One of the communications-related issues addressed by RBA is what Friedman calls “The Language Trap.” As groups attempt to work together — in our case information professionals and their clients — how often do poorly chosen or ill defined terms and ideas get in the way of understanding client needs and the valuable role information professionals play in solving them? Of the many terms charted in the RBA presentation were several commonly overused and under-defined words in our environment: Result, Benchmark, Outcome, Objective, coupled with Measurable, Incremental, Qualitative, and several other modifiers. How well do our clients understand what we mean when we use the terms and acronyms of our professional vocabulary? Can we determine whether we are using terms in common with the vocabulary of our clients? When creating a strategy for moving from the identified end to your priority means, be sure to check the language of your communications and match it to the usage and understanding of your clients. Create partnerships within your organization in order to build accountability and points of agreement that inform your priorities as you create your RBA campaign. Remember that RBA, ROI, or any advocacy campaign is a means for you to measure the success and impact of your decisions; they are not a method for management to measure you. That said, a well-conceived campaign would result in better understanding of what you do and why you are valuable, which could be a powerful message to management.

As a side thought, have we overused the term “value” in our quest for a better understanding of what the information professional provides? Has the term outlived its usefulness? Perhaps an accountability exercise is a good time to experiment with other terms. “Impact” is a term that may resonate with certain groups of clients. What impact do information professionals have on their organizations? How can that impact be communicated to clients? What term would you consider trying in your organization? If you discover one that works well, share it with the rest of us.

The RBA Lexicon

Handouts for the RBA workshop emphasized three concepts used to identify the stages in measuring accountability: Results, Indicators, and Performance Measures. The first two are significant to the identification of desired ends. The Results phase asks if our clients are better off because of the work we do and the strategies we develop. Indicators are measures that quantify our Results. Performance Measures (the three questions about service delivery and quality outlined earlier) are the means by which we achieve our prioritized ends. One objective is to learn how to use Indicators to design strategies that improve services.

One of the charts in the handouts (and there were entirely too many visuals to include in this short introduction to RBA) depicted several “baseline” scenarios. Baselines are visual representations of history and forecasts. The question the baseline poses is: if we keep doing what we have been doing, is it good enough? By identifying areas where current practice is not okay, we are alerted to go in a more positive direction. Anything that changes the direction of the baseline is positive and is a success, but it still may not be enough. The evaluation and accountability process is ongoing and encourages us to develop strategies to constantly improve. We must first ask what end we want, and what strategies will help us reach that level. Once we have decided on a strategy, we need to know how well it is being implemented and whether the outcomes are at the desired level — are our clients better off?

Keep in mind the terminology used earlier focusing on “transformation” rather than “transaction.” In order to be accountable, we don’t want to simply count outputs (how many questions were answered, how many projects were completed) but to identify outcomes (who asked the questions, what did they use the information for, did it improve their performance, did they achieve a new contract because of it, did it build collaborations and consensus?). Are the results measurable? Collect and use data transparently to ensure accountability.

Time for Action

Don’t jump to implement random good ideas, though there will be many good ideas that are tempting. Instead, link actions to specific causes, needs and trends or your prioritized ends and have a strong strategy for reaching success. RBA is grounded in partnership and a consultative process as part of the required communication emphasis. Be certain to have the right people at the table to work on implementing actionable steps. The makeup of the team may be different for each cause to be addressed. Be inclusive and determine who can best identify the ends to be targeted, who can bring the best ideas to the table, and who can put the necessary means in place.

One comforting directive from the RBA workshop was that sometimes good measures of accountability don’t exist, and you can waste valuable time and resources looking for perfection. Instead, exercise good judgement to use the “second-best” measures of accountability. One of my personal favorite lessons from business school was the concept of “paralysis by analysis.” Spending too much time trying to find the perfect answer or strategy can hold back progress. It’s better to move ahead and innovate not hesitate.

Looking for Answers

Perhaps nothing in this short introduction to RBA strikes you as new or useful, or complete enough to help you launch a full-blown RBA campaign. But keep an open mind and explore it further on the chance that your exploration will result in a new awareness, or “aha moment.” Many years ago when I was teaching a workshop on business reference to a group of public librarians in Westchester County, NY, I glanced up before beginning my remarks and discovered that one of my professional mentors and idols was sitting in the audience. I panicked! What could I possibly have to say that would be of value to her? Sylvia Mechanic was an icon in business librarianship and director of the Brooklyn Public Library Business Library. I made it through the session with sweaty palms, but at least my voice didn’t quiver and give me away. I immediately approached Sylvia and asked her why she was there. Her answer has stuck with me for many, many years as I moved through and grew in my profession. She explained that she had learned to go to a wide range of sessions on many topics given by a variety of sponsors and read widely in materials produced by like-minded people and groups. She found that if she came away with even one new idea, or an idea that triggered a new approach to an old problem, it would have been worth the expenditure of an hour of her time.

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