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The 1990s have brought significant changes to the public sector. From the Clinton administration's reinvention initiative to “create a government that works better and costs less” to Republican calls for devolving service responsibility to states and localities, there is a consensus that government has to change. In child and family services programs, as in others, this change has meant an increased focus on organizational responsibility and the development of systems to ensure that public institutions are accountable for program results. To date, a few states and many federal agencies have begun to develop results-based accountability systems for their programs. These efforts provide insights into the challenges of designing such systems and the opportunities they offer.

What is Meant by Results-Based Accountability Systems?
In one sense, public institutions have always been held accountable. Traditionally, however, accountability has been limited to inputs—what was bought and how wisely the money was spent. This “audit” mentality may have ensured that the ledger books were in order, but it provided little information about whether programs had their intended impact.

Results-based accountability calls for institutions to take responsibility for initiating some action and the results of that action. It requires that organizations articulate how public monies will be spent on services and products that have an impact on people's lives, monitor how effectively and efficiently these programs work, and take action to improve program results. As such, new systems for accountability share the following characteristics:

  • Outcomes that clearly articulate what programs are to achieve
  • Indicators to measure whether or not outcomes have been achieved
  • Performance standards or benchmarks to assess how programs are progressing
  • Data collection instruments to regularly obtain indicator data
  • Periodic collection and analysis of data for internal decision making and public reporting

Results-based accountability systems do not, of themselves, provide sufficient information for organizational decision making. They provide a basis for assessing whether or not program results are being achieved. As such they answer three questions: What is the program trying to achieve? How is the program progressing? Have desired results been achieved? Program evaluation answers different, yet equally important, questions: Why were results achieved or not? What linkages exist between interventions and outcomes? What unintended effects have resulted? How do programs need to change? Accountability systems, when linked with program evaluation, are a powerful management tool: results-based accountability systems monitor program progress and evaluations identify why programs are succeeding or failing and what changes might be necessary.

When utilized successfully, results-based accountability systems offer:

  1. An opportunity to engage stakeholders and program providers in building broadly shared visions of what program goals are important and what strategies are required to achieve them. This increases confidence that program goals are the right ones and that they will be sustained.
  2. An opportunity to think creatively about solutions to some of America's most pressing problems while ensuring that interventions are timely and relevant.
  3. An opportunity to move from categorical program approaches to more holistic ones. By focusing on outcomes and engaging many in the dialogue, stakeholders and others are able to examine how different interventions can be integrated to achieve mutually shared goals.
  4. An opportunity to systematically collect data and monitor progress, to critically identify and examine successes and failures, and to use this information to improve the organization's operations, services, and outcomes.
  5. An opportunity to demonstrate results and build confidence in public institutions.

Further Reading

Brizius, J. A., & Campbell, M. D. (1991). Getting results: A guide for government accountability. Washington, DC: Council of Governor's Policy Advisors.

Friedman, M. (1995). From outcomes to budgets: An approach to outcome-based budgeting for family and children's services. Manuscript in preparation, Center for the Study of Social Policy, Washington, DC. [See description in New & Noteworthy.]

Wholey, J. S., & Hatry, H. P. (1992). The case for performance monitoring. Public Administration Review, 52, 604-610.

Young, N. K., Gardner, S. L., & Cole, S. M. (1994). Getting to outcomes in integrated service delivery models. In Making a difference: Moving to outcome-based accountability for comprehensive service reforms (Resource Brief No. 7). Falls Church, VA: National Center for Service Integration.

There are also a number of significant challenges to the development of accountability systems:

  1. Accountability systems should be designed to support organizational learning and program improvement, not just to report results. Using accountability systems only to report results severely underutilizes their potential. When data are collected because program staff find the information necessary to their work and results information is fed back into the organization to improve its operations, accountability systems are much more valuable and are far more likely to be sustained.
  2. Linking rewards and sanctions to program results must be done carefully if accountability systems are to be useful management tools. Attaching “high stakes” to accountability systems, especially early in their development, may corrupt them. Systems may become indicator driven rather than outcome driven; people may choose measures that are easy to collect or affect rather than address more challenging problems. Data may be mishandled or services may be targeted to those populations for whom results may show quickly rather than more difficult-to-reach persons.
  3. Accountability systems require that the capacity to develop outcomes, identify indicators, and collect and utilize data be developed throughout organizations. It is important that training and technical assistance be provided to assist people with the tasks that accountability systems require. Unfortunately, resources available for these purposes are decreasing and educating legislators and others about the importance of long-term investments will be one of the greatest challenges to developing strong accountability systems.
  4. Changing governance relationships among agencies and among federal, state, and local actors will require a new spirit of cooperation and trust if accountability systems are to be successful. In return for measurable results, agencies with traditional oversight responsibilities will need to delegate authority and provide the resources and technical assistance necessary for others to implement programs. The challenges are particularly great in the child and family services area, where efforts to improve accountability are being complimented by efforts to integrate services and to devolve service responsibility to localities.
  5. There will be a temptation to judge accountability systems before it is appropriate. Political exigencies and other imperatives will try to force systems to show results quickly. This may lead some to assign the task of identifying outcomes and indicators to one unit in the hierarchy, rather than organization-wide. Unfortunately, a system developed for a few and by a few will last only as long as those persons remain in place.

The development of good and useful accountability systems takes time. Stakeholders may have difficulty coming to agreement on outcomes, appropriate indicators may be difficult to identify, and new data collection instruments will need to be developed and tested. It likewise takes time to achieve and demonstrate the important people-level results that new accountability systems intend. Fortunately, the rewards for such an initial investment are potentially great.

Karen Horsch, Research Assistant, HFRP

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