Harnessing data for insights and outcomes

Alexandra Cosman, Director of Active Performance Management

In Marion County, Oregon, as in much of the country, government officials grapple with how best to support youth that are at-risk of escalating in the juvenile justice system. Once they have entered and escalated, we know that the chances are greater than not that they will be re-arrested and enter a cycle of incarceration that may seem nearly impossible to break.

Marion County wants to serve the at-risk youth in their community and set them on the path to a better life. And it wants to do more than expand services — it wants to know that those services work. So, as the county expands a program called Family Check Up & Everyday Parenting, an evidence-based approach to positive parenting, they are working with Social Finance to monitor and measure the progress of the program.

This is just one example of innovative performance management practices that governments are using to inform decision making and improve services for their communities. It is a concept that is quickly gaining traction: National League of Cities, What Works Cities, Results for America, and America Forward are all focused on the power of data to drive effective and efficient government. And the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative highlights pioneering projects in their latest brief on evidence-based policymaking.

Given this momentum — and the compelling case for data-driven policy — why is the monitoring and measurement work of Marion County still an anomaly, an outlier in the vast landscape of government-funded service provision? Why has it not become standard operating procedure for state and local governments across the United States?

The truth is that changing standard operating procedure is not easy work.

One major barrier government agencies face in using data to understand and improve implementation is the complex systems they work within. Government procurement systems are oriented towards enforcement and compliance, with little direct communication on the progress and results of the services delivered.

To help break down this barrier, Social Finance helps governments establish and operationalize something we call active performance management (APM). APM is designed to build a close partnership between government agencies and service providers to integrate services, share data, improve programming and, most importantly, achieve outcomes for constituents. In this way, APM helps to deliver better outcomes for every dollar governments spend.

APM is integral to our work at Social Finance. In our Pay for Success projects, our work continues long after the deal has been signed, capital has been raised, and services have launched. We work closely with our project partners to put in place a governance system which will establish and manage the data collection, data sharing, data analysis, discussion forums, and decision-making processes that are critical to performance management and overall project success. APM is where the learning — and critical course corrections — happen.

Active performance management supports three types of program improvement:

  1. Rapid troubleshooting: Real-time data collection and analysis facilitates early identification of issues, allowing service providers and government to make quick adjustments to stay on track.
  2. Continuous improvement: Setting ambitious but realistic targets and regularly tracking performance against targets helps ensure that overall trends are positive so that the program is improving over time.
  3. Innovations: Identifying novel solutions, new ways of doing business, or changes to standard operating procedures provides the opportunity to rapidly improve certain aspects of a program.

Social Finance has years of experience of working closely with governments and service providers on APM to measure, monitor, and improve project performance to help deliver impact for individuals and communities. Through this work, we have developed the skills and tools to support the delivery of more effective programs, whether or not the program is funded through Pay for Success.

And we have found that it is not only governments who are interested in improving outcomes for their communities and constituents. In Indiana, for example, we are partnering with Nurse-Family Partnership and Goodwill Indiana to analyze program data to understand current operations, establish a performance management plan and working group, and to provide ongoing program monitoring as the evidence-based nurse home visiting program expands through the state.

Social Finance offers APM as a stand-alone service to governments and service providers that are looking for more rigorous data-driven insight, monitoring, and improved efficiency from their programs.

For more information, contact Alexandra Cosman, Director of Active Performance Management, at acosman@socialfinance.org.