Turning a Commitment to Outcomes Into Practice

A vision for results-driven government isn't enough. The way business is conducted needs to change.
January 8, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
Employees in a meeting with a board full of post-it notes.
By Lisa Morrison Butler  |  Contributor
Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services
By Danielle Cerny  |  Contributor
A program director at the Government Performance Lab

In recent years, more and more jurisdictions have been working to redefine success in the public sector, changing their focus from how many people receive services to how those services impact the residents who receive them. Often, such shifts start with strategic planning -- departmentwide visioning of the future mapped against broad goals for achieving that vision.

But declaring a commitment to outcomes is rarely enough to change outcomes. Instead, governments need to translate this planning into practice.

This was the challenge Chicago's Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) faced in 2017. DFSS had spent two years creating a strategic framework to shift the focus of its $420 million budget from outputs to outcomes. Next, the department needed to connect its results-driven vision to how it actually conducted business across 13 divisions, 350 full-time staff and 400 community-based grantees.

Managing public-sector change at this scale is never easy. Tight budgets, entrenched interests and the natural caution of those in elected positions all tend to favor the status quo. Yet DFSS's experience provides an example of a multi-pronged approach that a wide range of agencies can use to translate a commitment to outcomes into methods for engaging grantees, making funding decisions and managing contracts.

To begin, DFSS needed to connect its high-level goals to day-to-day programming. As is true in social-services agencies across the country, the majority of DFSS programming is provided through contracted community-based organizations. So DFSS started by using procurements and contracts as strategic tools to translate outcomes goals into the documents that govern service delivery. To do so, the department leveraged a scheduled cycle of requests for proposals to issue $55 million in results-driven RFPs that elevated program priorities and outcome metrics; identified target populations and their needs; and increased flexibility for grantees to offer innovative, evidence-based solutions. To lock in these changes, DFSS changed its default RFP templates to include the core elements of results-driven RFPs. By late this year, DFSS anticipates that every program division will complete a major RFP cycle using results-driven approaches.

Implementing change at this scale also required an investment in the front-line staff who design and manage contracted services. With assistance from the Harvard Kennedy School's Government Performance Lab, DFSS trained more than 80 team members in strategies for executing results-driven RFPs and actively managing contracts with data. Implementing these new approaches on tight deadlines was difficult, and many staff members voiced the need for more time and additional RFP cycles to continue honing these skills. Still, over 85 percent of staff involved in the department's last contracting cycle said they felt "very ready" or "somewhat ready" to build on this experience and use similar results-driven approaches in the future.

With this foundation in place, DFSS worked to align contract incentives with desired outcomes through targeted performance payments. While governments often view performance payments as something of a holy grail, they can produce unintended consequences in human services and are rarely enough, on their own, to improve outcomes. Targeted performance payments can, however, improve data quality and reinforce agency priorities. Beginning with its workforce-development contracts, DFSS developed new performance payments for serving priority populations and helping participants retain longer-term employment. While payments are small -- under 5 percent of total contract value -- they are designed to improve reporting and strengthen DFSS's ability to understand and manage toward longer-term improvements.

Finally, to infuse outcomes into ongoing grantee engagements, DFSS built on its recent $19 million results-driven homeless-shelter RFP to pilot monthly active contract management meetings with a select group of shelter grantees. These meetings were designed to help the department collaborate with grantees in the use of data to monitor trends and to act on real-time opportunities to troubleshoot problems and share best practices. DFSS plans to use what it learns from this pilot to expand active contract management strategies to all shelter grantees when new contracts begin this year.

Two years into these efforts, DFSS' work is far from done. To keep improving, the department has had to adapt to evolving needs and learning while sustaining its focus on outcomes. The department has, for example, implemented procedures for continuously revising its priorities and engaging staff and grantees to surface opportunities for growth. Acting on one such opportunity, DFSS is developing a process, adapted from Louisville, Ky.'s strategic procurement system, for identifying and resourcing priority programs for improvement across its portfolio.

Ultimately, there's no silver bullet for creating and maintaining a focus on outcomes. Taken alone, none of the above approaches is likely to change how a department -- or even a single program -- operates. Together, however, they create a foundation of knowledge, practices and tools upon which an agency can start turning a commitment to outcomes into a practice of performance improvement.

Lisa Morrison Butler | Contributor