Designing for Outcomes: Searching for Contribution

July 10, 2017 | By Innocent Obi Jr.

Part 1/2

“Funding for outcomes” is not a new approach. The preference for developing contracting mechanisms that ensure high quality, steady performance, and better outcomes has been a strong predilection of not only government, but also the private and non-profit sectors. Today’s approaches ask not Who or What, but instead How, in relation to Who and What?

How do we, in a plural society, agree upon standards of “better outcomes?” How do we agree on the type –from education to recidivism — and scale — from local to federal — of an intervention? How do we agree given qualitative and quantitative assessments on what is impactful?

The strong preference for early outcomes-focused arrangements was due to their focus on achieving goals and objectives and producing measurable results. In the United States, what began in the Department of Defense as a planning mechanism to increase the efficiency of the United States military was quickly promoted and scaled across government. From its genesis in the Johnson administration and its resurgence in the Clinton and Bush administration to its reinvigoration in the Obama administration, outcomes-focused, performance-based arrangements have progressed tremendously. Over the course of the past six decades, this trend has taken many monikers: Managing for Results, Value for Money, Pay for Results, Pay for Success, Performance-based budgeting, Outcomes-focused contracting, evidence-based policy making. Outside of the public management sphere, under the hypernym of impact investing, many philanthropic and private sector actors are experimenting with new tools and vehicles that produce positive, measurable results and provide a commensurate level of financial returns.

In this way, “Funding for outcomes” is not the paradigm shift happening today: the shift in mindsets and theories of change towards outcomes has been occurring for a good part of the last century. Today, the paradigm shift that is taking place is relational. There is a targeted attempt by problem-solvers and innovators to understand the conjunctions and disjunctions of the actions and behaviors of a host of actors that play critical roles in the provision of social services — foundations, government, non-profit, and citizens. Today, we, across sectors, are fully embracing the implications of what Horst Rittle termed as “wicked problems.” Rittle did not devalue the planning and evaluation methods that were being used at the time. Instead he focused his analysis on the particular dynamic and volatile nature of social problems. The core of his advice to those working to resolve wicked problems was simple — to view them as design problems that are deeply embedded in overlapping and ambiguous webs of social, economic, political, and cultural contexts. In a way, he advised us that in order to achieve better social outcomes we would need to think of ourselves as designers, rather than planners. Problem solvers of all types — technologists, entrepreneurs, innovators, businessmen, and policymakers — are designers. The single most important insight of this reconceptualization of our roles is an understanding that the most critical aspect of resolving a social problem is the very act of defining the problem: it is a mindset that eschews linearizing and embraces a more adaptive and flexible approach to complex social problems.

Today we are more predisposed to defining social problems in a systems manner. Rather than describing these problems as having a clear and identifiable source, we recognize a somewhat complex etiology: that there exist multiple observable and latent causes whose contribution to the problem could vary across space and time. We come to value time and appreciate the indubitable reality that oftentimes cause and effect are difficult to disentangle. This mindset orients us away from a search for certainty and around a search for contribution. We do not only care for what works, but also for what works in particular contexts — where, when, and with whom. This is not because we lack the intellectual drive to inquire at a higher level of specificity, but the opposite. Our interest in specificity, in incrementally detailing the causal chain, has led us to an issue that we, designers, must confront: the dilemma of complexity and scale.

Developing new solutions to old problems.

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