No Easy Answers on Performance Measurement, but Dialogue Offers Fresh Insights

— edited by NASCSP staff —

The Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) Network faces several key challenges right now. Not only are we threatened with disabling funding cuts, but we’re being pressed to resolve complex questions around change, results, and measuring impact. Never before have we faced such scrutiny from every direction. The one positive in all of this is that we’re not alone.  Practitioners, researchers, and experts all over the country are grappling with this very same issue – how to demonstrate non-profit results and return on investment. While there are no easy answers, there are lessons to be learned from the efforts of our colleagues. Last week, The Hamilton Project at Brookings and Results for America dissected and debated this topic at length at an event, “Investing in What Works: The Importance of Evidence-Based Policymaking.” The presentations and conclusions offer some valuable insights for our own efforts around performance measurement and accountability.

Two researchers shared their perspective on the crucial role of evidence in policymaking.  Jeffrey B. Liebman of Harvard University presented his paper, “Building on Recent Advances in Evidence-Based Policymaking.” He discussed ways to reform government funding practices to reward innovation. His newly published paper is definitely worth a look. Louis Jacobson of New Horizons Economic Research, presented his co-authored policy proposal to enhance evaluation of workforce development through better data collection. The paper, entitled, “Using Data to Improve the Performance of Workforce Training,” suggests among other things using a report card to allow states to evaluate the basics of a program’s performance and to effectively compare programs at a glance. Michael Greenstone, director of the Hamilton Project, noted it is “critical to identify promising, scalable programs and use evidence to back up funding decisions.” While our network has taken many best practices to scale over the years, like Head Start for example, it is always useful to learn new techniques to support innovation and replication in the current political and economic climate.

In light of President Obama’s FY 2014 budget recommendation which would cut CSBG by 50% and introduce competition and a dogged focus on results, it’s easy to fixate on funding and the challenges that face us. Former  White House Domestic Policy Council Director, John Bridgeland, acknowledged, “we get so focused on cuts but the good part of competition is that the programs doing well get more funding to keep making that impact.”

Deputy Mayor of New York, NY, Linda Gibbs is experienced in taking things to scale. She discussed the challenges of finding programs that are effective and scalable. Gibbs noted that in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg invested in a range of ideas focused on accountability in implementation and “on strong data so the programs can learn and revise. Some of the more successful and potentially scalable programs we have now came to us and failed the first time around.” Briggs’ challenge to all social service providers is, “to drive programs to prove outcomes to justify the investment” and make sure that the money goes to where it can be most effective.

This challenge was driven home by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Alan Krueger, Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who focused on the importance of harnessing evidence to improve federally-funded programs.  Senator Portman noted that in many cases, the data exists but just isn’t used. He further noted that regulations can encourage practitioners to make data accessible and meaningful.  Senator Warner insisted that the “focus needs to be not on adding reporting requirements but on ensuring [that] what is reported is useful data.”

This challenge, and the information presented at this collaborative event, is particularly relevant and timely given the network’s ongoing efforts to develop performance standards and move to the next generation of Results Oriented Management and Accountability. What do you think? Take a look at these reports and leave us a message below.