How to measure impact in people-focused services

Published: 10 June 2020

A ruler, or set square
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Three reflections on the question of knowing what to measure, and how. 

By Blair Seiler, Associate at Social Finance

How do we know what to measure?” This was the key question that arose as local government innovators from across the UK came together for an exchange at NLGN’s Measuring Impact event in April. Even as social impact measurement has become common in the public, social and now increasingly the private sector, people-focused services face a unique set of challenges.

Defining impact for people-focused services often feels like a question with no answer. Impact can be complex, vague and personal: how do you measure the impact of family reunification for a refugee? Reducing loneliness for an isolated older person? Shifting care from nursing to assistive technologies for a disabled person?

These questions are at the heart of Social Finance’s work. We partner with government, the social sector and the financial community to develop models for impact at scale. In our pay by results’ social investment projects (Social Impact Bonds) or our Impact Incubator we develop new models for better services. Defining impact is often the first step. The way we define impact determines service design, which partners are brought together, and whether social investment is repaid.

Below are three reflections on the question of How do we know what to measure,” based in our experience defining and measuring impact across issue areas from children’s services to re-offending.

1. Co-producing the definition of impact’

Impact’ means something different for each stakeholder. Government might define impact through the bottom-line impact on public service use, whereas social investors and grand funders often focus on a few hard performance indicators. Individuals may have unique and highly personalised views of what impact’ is in their lives.

In fact, these multiple lenses can all be useful and important ways to think about an issue! The important part is the careful balancing act of viewpoints, to ensure impact isn’t defined solely by the decision-makers or the payers.

A co-production method bringing in all stakeholders to define impact can lead to a more inclusive and holistic definition. This motivates and joins up users, partners and payers, ensuring more person-centred and effective services.

2. Defining impact at the level of the problem

An important part of defining impact is focusing at the right level — where is the problem the service wants to change? Impact often involves those familiar buckets’ for service users like housing, health, offending, employment and wellbeing.

Impact often goes beyond the individual. It could mean positive change for a family, in a system of services, or a culture of working. For example, a service’s biggest impact might be in joining up local services — such as a children’s organisation hosting regular multi-agency meetings with police, education and GPs. Or, a service’s main impact might be on a person’s family, helping a parent with mental health issues reduce intergenerational cycles of trauma.

Defining where the issues are allows services to focus on where to prioritise impact. This is often at the family, service, system, or community level as well as the individual level.

3. Keeping the most-measurable from becoming the most important

Measuring impact is a constant trade-off of resources and results. As a consequence, impact is often defined through the lens of the most-measurable’. These may be process-focused indicators like: number of people served, caseloads, and wait times, or simple outcomes e.g. number of people who find employment. Making decisions on the basis of these metrics is short-sighted if they are picked on the basis of measurability.

It is more difficult to capture the messy outcomes: whether change was sustained, if that change was meaningful for the service user, whether softer’ outcomes such as wellbeing, safety and community were affected.

While these outcomes can be challenging and more expensive to capture, they answer the long term and critical questions and deserve focus.

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