Business First September 2017 Business First September 2017 - Page 44

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP Outcome Based Accountability CAN IT DELIVER RESULTS by Ulster University Visiting Professor Simon Bridge f you had examined the draft Programme for Government which was issued for consultation last year (when we still had a sitting government), you might have noticed that it differed from its predecessors. That is because it was formed through a process called ‘Outcome Based Accountability’ (OBA) and, instead of listing the things the various departments would do separately, it offered instead a framework of 14 outcomes they hoped to achieve together. I Why has this been done? One answer could be because, while the departments have largely done what they said they would do, that has not led to us getting the outcomes we thought we wanted ­ such as better educational achievement, more jobs and a stronger economy. OBA, however, starts by identifying desired outcomes and looks at the actions needed to achieve those things, which may well fall across departmental boundaries, and then at the measurement required to assess whether the actions are indeed having the effect desired. But is OBA a helpful development? 42 Clearly if Stormont is to be effective we do need co­ordinated action at government level – the long sought­for ‘joined­up government’ ­ but there are good reasons for thinking that OBA is not new. Not only are its ideas preached elsewhere but approaches like this come round in cycles, albeit often after their previous incarnation has been forgotten. For instance a focus on the overall aim, and the co­ ordination of different parts of the system to achieve it, have for long been at the heart of military systems for making plans of action (where it has been said one should spend about half the total time available clarifying just what is the goal to be achieved). If OBA helps parts of government to recognise that, then it is to be welcomed, but that does not make it special. Other parts of OBA would appear to be more problematic, not least the early and predominant attention given to progress assessment by establishing indicators, baselines and measurements. This can lead to the sort of thinking challenged in the ‘McNamara fallacy’ (as expressed by Daniel Yankelovich in 1972) which recognises that some important things cannot easily be measured: ‘The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.’ Is OBA on its own is enough? Crafting any useful device or product generally requires a whole set of tools as well as the skill to use them. Have modern, seemingly all­purpose, inventions (such as 3D printers) led us to think we can dispense with that and just have one easy­to­use tool to do everything for us? OBA is not a cure­all, magic bullet ­ but it seems that’s the way in which it is sometimes viewed. For instance one of the planning tools we need is a view of the whole process – not just of the final outcomes. Understanding the nature of the sequence from inputs to outputs