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This brief defines results-based accountability (RBA) as a management tool that can facilitate collaboration among human service agencies, as a method of decentralizing services, and as an innovative regulatory process and explores the components of RBA systems. The brief also shows how RBA can be developed and used at different levels: state, community, agency, or program.

About This Series

These short reports are designed to frame and contribute to the public debate on evaluation, accountability, and organizational learning.


I. Results-Based Accountability Defined

Multiple definitions of results-based accountability (RBA) currently exist. Results-based accountability (also known as outcome-based accountability) is defined as a management tool that can facilitate collaboration among human service agencies, as a method of decentralizing services, and as an innovative regulatory process. At a minimum, the term implies that expected results (also known as goals) are clearly articulated, and that data are regularly collected and reported to address questions of whether results have been achieved.

RBA can be developed and used at different levels: state, community, agency, or program. For example, a state-wide goal is that child poverty rates be reduced to 8% by the year 2010. An example of a community-level goal is that child poverty rates in a given community be reduced to 8% by the year 2010. An example of an agency-level goal is that client satisfaction with services provided by the employment agency will improve by 10% by January 1997. An example program-level goal is that an employment program will increase by 10% the number of program participants placed in jobs that pay above the federal poverty guidelines between January 1996 and January 1997.

The level of the goals dictates responsibility for achievement of results. For example, all persons in a state or community—including lay citizens, public agency managers, and providers—are responsible for meeting state- or community-level goals. By contrast, agency managers are responsible for attainment of agency-level goals. Similarly, program managers and providers are responsible for meeting program-level goals.

Although many states and localities do not currently have RBA “systems” per se, they often have multiple ongoing efforts focusing on achieving measurable results for children and families. RBA efforts can be designed at different levels; efforts focusing on different aspects of child and family services can be developed simultaneously. An important step in beginning a RBA effort is to identify and coordinate potential RBA activities that are already occurring (see Strategic Planning Tip Sheet for further information).

Designing and implementing results-based accountability initiatives creates both challenges and opportunities. Details on the specific challenges and opportunities facing those developing such systems are provided in the forthcoming Challenges and Opportunities Tip Sheet.

II. Components of RBA Systems

A cohesive results-based accountability system includes the following components: a strategic planning process, goals and indicators, benchmarks or targets, and mechanisms for regular public reporting.

No standard set of definitions of results-based accountability terms currently exists. States use similar terms for different concepts, and different terms to describe similar concepts. The concepts described below are important components of RBA systems. However, states may use different terms to refer to these concepts. Further detail on each component can be found in related Tip Sheets.

Strategic planning process: The strategic planning process is an essential first step in the development of a RBA system. Successful systems begin by stepping back and examining core values, then articulating a plan for the future based on these values. A strategic plan includes a vision or conceptual image of the core values of the state, community, agency, or program; goals; and targets to measure progress. States most successful in designing RBA efforts have developed processes to include all stakeholders in the articulation of the strategic plans. See Strategic Planning Tip Sheet for description of approaches.

Goals, Objectives, and Indicators
Articulation of goals and objectives as well as specification of measurable indicators are the next steps in RBA efforts. The articulated goals—or expected results—reflect the values identified in the strategic plan and are statements of the desired conditions of well-being. Although these goals are generally expressed in terms of the entire population, they can be addressed to individual agencies and programs. Goals can be expressed within a specific time frame and in quantifiable terms, or without reference to time and without attached quantifiable measures. Two examples of desired conditions of well-being are: 1) all families will be strong and healthy, and 2) by 1999, 95% of children will enter school ready to learn.

Objectives, derived from the goals, are statements of the short-term conditions needed to achieve the desired conditions of well-being for children, families, or communities in the long-term. Like goals, objectives are generally expressed in terms of the entire population but can target participants of a program. Examples of objectives linked to the goals listed above are:

  1. The number of children receiving immunizations will increase.
  2. By 1999, 95% of children will have access to developmentally appropriate preschool.

Indicators are quantifiable measures which enable decision-makers to assess progress towards achievement of intended outputs, outcomes, goals, or objectives. They always specify time frames and are expressed in measurable terms. The first goal and objective above do not include indicators; they are stated in very general terms (“will increase”). In contrast, the second goal and objective specify a quantifiable measure of progress (95% of children). See Indicators Tip Sheet or additional information.

Goals and objectives should be articulated before availability of indicator data is considered. For example, some states have specified goals of “improving quality of life.” Although data are not yet available to measure this goal, it reflects the vision of the state and should therefore be included in the RBA framework. Developing goals on the basis of readily available data rather than core values necessarily limits the RBA framework.

Benchmark or Targets
An important component of a RBA effort is the articulation of target levels of performance expressed in measurable terms and specified time frames, against which actual achievement is compared.

Public Reporting
Regular reporting of results to the public is an essential aspect of a RBA effort. While public reporting of data is one of the last steps in developing a RBA effort, it is important to consider audience, reporting criteria, and mechanisms early in the design and implementation of the effort. Failure to consider these vital components can jeopardize usefulness of RBA data.

Public reports of RBA data should include the strategic planning framework (including the vision), goals and objectives, benchmark or targets, and indicators (measures of progress). Often, the first public reports will include goals and objectives that do not yet have measurable indicators. Nonetheless, such goals are important because they provide the public with information about state values and priorities.

Additionally, contextual information must be provided to readers to facilitate correct interpretation of reports. For example, some states have specified a goal of reducing unemployment. Economic factors such as a recession or major factory closing could affect achievement of this goal; discussion of such confounding factors will ensure that reviewers modify their expectations accordingly.

III. Additional Resources

General Documents on RBA
Brizius, J. A., & Campbell, M. D. (1991). Getting results: A guide for government accountability. Washington, DC: Council of Governors' Policy Advisors.

Campbell, M. D. Outcome and performance measurement systems: An overview. Washington, DC: Alliance for Redesigning Government.

Horsch, K. (1996, Winter). Results-based accountability systems: Opportunities and challenges. The Evaluation Exchange, 2(1), 2-3.

Young, N., Gardner, S., Coley, S., Schorr, L., & Bruner, C. (1994). Making a difference: Moving to outcome-based accountability for comprehensive service reforms (Resource Brief #7). Falls Church, VA: National Center for Service Integration.

Information on RBA
Alliance for Redesigning Government: Operates a Reinventing Government database that connects to federal, state, and local outcomes and performances case studies and related information. Part of the Congressionally-chartered National Academy of Public Administration.

Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement: Produces reports on how state agencies and local governments can develop results-based accountability systems. To obtain information contact: 265-2 Peik Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, 612-625-0502.

Center for Assessment and Policy Development: Produced a paper on challenges and potential benefits of developing an outcomes orientation. To obtain information contact: 111 Presidential Boulevard, Suite 234, Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004, tel: 215-664-4540, fax: 215-664-6099.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Produces reports on opportunities and challenges of results-based accountability efforts. To obtain information contact: 1250 Eye Street, NW, Suite 503, Washington, DC 20005-3922, 202-371-1565.

Council of Chief State School Officers: Produces issue briefs and reports on collaborative and coordinated child and family services, as well as state results-based accountability efforts. To obtain information contact: Bill Shepardson, 1 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20001-1431, tel: 202-408-5505, fax: 202-408-8072.

Council of Governors' Policy Advisors: Produces policy reports on the development of results-based accountability systems. To obtain information contact: Hall of the States, 400 North Capitol Street, Suite 390, Washington, DC 20001-1511, tel: 202-624-5386, fax: 202-624-7846.

Family Investment Trust, State of Missouri: State-level body, coordinates results-based accountability efforts and produces reports on developing RBA systems. To obtain information contact: 3915 West Pine Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108, 314-531-5505.

The Finance Project: Produces publications on finance issues related to results-based accountability for child and family services. To obtain information contact: 1341 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005, tel: 202-628-4200, fax: 202-628-4205.

Florida Commission on Government Accountability to the People: State-level body, coordinates results-based accountability efforts and produces reports on RBA process. To obtain information contact: Executive Office of the Governor, The Capitol, Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001, tel: 904-922-6907.

Improved Outcomes for Children Project, Center for the Study of Social Policy: Developed reports on outcome-based accountability. To obtain information contact: 1250 Eye Street, NW, Suite 503, Washington DC 20005, tel: 202-371-1565, fax: 202-371- 1472.

National Governors' Association: Produces reports on integrated child and family services and state efforts to develop results-based accountability systems. To obtain information contact: Hall of the States, 444 North Capitol Street, Washington, DC 20001-1512, 202-624-5300.

National Performance Review: Vice-President Al Gore's effort to “reinvent” the federal government involved in a variety of activities to promote results-based accountability. To obtain information contact: 750 17th Street, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006, fax: 202-632-0390.

Oregon Commission on Children and Families: Produces numerous relevant publications, particularly the outcome measurement notebook: 1995-1997 (Portland, OR: Oregon Commission on Children and Families, 1995). This notebook, designed to help local Commissions on Children and Families in Oregon develop outcome measures, includes sections on the use of information in comprehensive planning, research on model programs, and sample measurement methods for frequently measured outcomes. To obtain information, contact: Oregon Commission on Children and Families, 800 NE Oregon Street, Suite 550, # 13, Portland, OR 97232.

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