Shining a light on impact measurement

Staff writer

Many highly motivated public service colleagues experienced a decade of rule by hundreds of performance indicators in the 1990s.  If performance was ‘good’, you could apply for a stretch target and a potential financial reward or badge of honour for your stretch.  If performance was ‘bad’, then you could define a ‘floor target’, split the problem into separate measures (such as defining an indicator for an under-performing group within a population, thus projecting systemic shortcomings onto people within the sub-group), and perhaps have a budget boost, funded by taking cash from services that had performed well.  What mattered was often reduced to the colour of traffic lights on complex spreadsheets, since with hundreds of indicators competing for attention, and a flood of data, there was only time to add a few case studies about people and places.  Outcomes, supposedly a form of describing our goals that was more appropriate in context than the more transparently commercial term results, became a universal currency of public services. Departments donned grand outcome headings, frequently in triples.  No longer was emptying a bin enough.  Residents, now customers, could sense a transformed service as ‘safer bins, stronger bins, scented bins’.  There is little exaggeration here.

I had hoped that we had all seen the light was neither green, yellow nor red, and realised something of the deadening effect of this system on the lives of communities, individuals, and creativity in public services.  (Sticking with the example above, our streets have been filled with ugly bins.  We might tick a box on recycling.  Now residents have less direct reason to work with each other to address their waste.)

Instead, a wave of measurement has washed, with added values, behaviours and impact bonds, to advise charities what they must be like and how they should work.  These can – and some are designed to – re-shape the relationship between funders and professional charities, changing the charity’s identity and limiting its reach.  It’s easy to become resigned to a perception of the reality in which we operate, as something necessary for the wider common good, and to improve trust that might less be taken for granted than in the past.

Charity in its original spirit of caritas – love – is hard to address in the measurement game.  It pre-dates and overcomes the calculated risk-taking of social investment appraisals.  Unlike many public services, which have the relative certainty of statutory duties in a defined geographical area, caritas involves the gracious, free gift of the whole person; it is voluntary, relational and vulnerable.  Caritas transcends post code and electoral boundaries, and is inseparable from facing the truth about ourselves and social justice.  Caritas does not need a theory of change or a contract, and is not about trying.  Caritas sees what needs to be done, rolls up its sleeves, and does it.  This is one reason why food banks, for example, are frowned upon by some policy makers and professionals.  In a Christian understanding, caritas learns pre-eminently from the life and example of Christ, and its practice draws on all our God-given resources, not just those we can measure.  How would health and safety regulators would react to Christ’s turning water into a wine of unknown origin?

‘But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ (Matt. 6:3.)  Had I stopped even for a moment to allow something of the freedom of this expression to enter into my practice, how much more vulnerable would that practice be?

For me, the biggest challenge for social action in this country – and the one that cries out for sustainable nurturing throughout the whole of our lives together, rather than by temporary contracts – is how we enable people to overcome the fear of getting involved.  This is partly a natural fear of the unknown.  It’s also a fear made more acute in recent decades by a combination of the scale of inequalities, struggles to build community in many places, the way we place responsibility for our issues in the hands of professionals (and then sometimes complain about their cost, complexity and an uncaring system), and high levels of risk aversion that can overshadow public services.

The network of volunteer effort in parishes, alongside our mission-based charities in education, health, social care, and welfare, pre-dates many UK state welfare constructions of the 20th Century, and will continue if the state decides or is forced to withdraw further from providing services.  Voluntary donors, and great funders, tend to accept that a donation is made in trust.  For many reasons, results can be different from those anticipated, especially when we base charity on the strengths of individuals we serve.  We understand the gift as socially just, rather than to be justified solely by measurement.  If government regards measurement as a tool to re-forge charity in the incompatible images of high commerce and bureaucracy, we can expect many more perverse consequences for our communities that could take generations to resolve.

Don’t be afraid, therefore, of identifying and celebrating the stories of progress, and be wary of projecting numbers and stories into general conclusions.


See also:

The term charity is ‘unhelpful’, British Red Cross chief executive says’, Civil Society, 14 October 2016

‘Former Cameron advisor: Impossible to measure youth work impact’, Children and Young People Now, 17 October 2016

‘How can we make impact measurement more useful?’ , Civil Society, 15 November 2016

‘Charity run entirely by volunteers’ largest factor in public confidence, Civil Society, 3 November 2016

Cardinal Vincent Nichols talks to evangelisers, 2015 (video)


The views expressed in this blog are not CSAN policy.