How Results-Based Accountability is Improving Public Sector Performance

Performance Improvement


September 21, 2016

A seismic shift is underway in the public sector, which relies on federal funding as its lifeblood. Large amounts of taxpayer dollars are allocated to grants – in fact, the federal budget for grants to state and local governments has increased exponentially, from $91 billion in fiscal year 1980 to about $628 billion in 2015. Historically, there has been little insight into how federal funding delivered results for programs or benefited citizens, but that is beginning to change.

Federal, state and local governments were just beginning to introduce the concept of “results accountability” into child and family services 20 years ago, when The Evaluation Exchange, Harvard Family Research Project’s quarterly evaluation periodical, published its first newsletters on the topic. Since then, researchers and practitioners have produced a huge amount of information on how to define, measure and collect the data necessary for accountability systems across a variety of sectors.

Many agencies, however, still find it a challenge to define and measure the appropriate outcomes. As a country, the U.S. pours billions of dollars into programs, many of which are hugely successful in changing their beneficiaries’ lives, but see few improvements to conditions of well-being for communities at large1. In many instances, the top challenge organizations face is in implementing a process to move from simply collecting program data to measuring clear outcomes and creating meaningful, action-oriented strategies with the information.

Today, results accountability is top of mind for public sector leaders as scrutiny into what these organizations deliver has increased from the government and public alike. Federal rules have simplified the grant approval process but have added a new dimension: that the recipient, whether it be a city, county or social services provider, must define and measure the desired outcomes.

The push for results accountability is manifesting in different ways, depending on the setting, and is shifting and evolving. At the federal level, performance, not compliance, is now the key indicator of success. In 2013, the Office of Management and Budget introduced revised guidance to streamline the federal funding and grant management process. The reform set out to increase the impact and accessibility of programs by minimizing the time spent complying with unnecessarily burdensome administrative requirements and by re-orienting recipients toward achieving program objectives. With this in mind, organizations receiving funding can reallocate dollars that would have otherwise been spent on compliance toward projects that will clearly demonstrate results.

For example, one of our state agency clients responsible for children and family wellness and safety is demonstrating that results accountability is possible in a people-driven organization. It’s a model that looks very different from the traditional approach of understanding the impact of decisions on the bottom line. While capturing and reporting data is a vitally important element of the agency’s success, the organization ultimately needed a way to effect change through the use of research and evidence-informed actions. When the state legislature established the Results-Oriented Accountability Program, it shifted its focus to the outcome of families’ lives, which presented many unique challenges. With infrastructure that created a means to collect, analyze, communicate and act upon outcome data in a proactive manner, the agency was able to realize better outcomes for children, a more proactive system and stronger partnerships in the community.

The shift toward results accountability is also shaping how organizations in the public sector manage and measure the performance of third-party vendors. With vendors and contractors playing a critical role in agencies’ abilities to deliver services, another state agency customer developed and implemented an information management and accounting system to not only afford better control on achieving outcomes in mental health but also improve cost control for the state and its agencies. The resulting framework is evidence-based and allows organizations to determine a clear link between vendors and performance. It addresses questions surrounding what an organization is achieving with its budget and whether funds are appropriately allotted to get the right outcomes.

As federal, state and local regulations continue to evolve, agencies have an increasing number of tools they can use to better measure and manage their own outcomes, and those of their contract providers. The organizations that implement results accountability practices and processes independent of evolving federal, state or local regulations will be well positioned to keep up with changes in years to come.

For more information on how to improve the performance of your government programs, download our latest white paper here.

1. Trying Hard is Not Good Enough, Mark Friedman.


Peter Cotterrell
This post was co-authored by  Peter Cotterrell. Peter is a Master Practitioner at North Highland who has 15 years consulting experience with a demonstrated track record of delivery across the program life cycle — transforming public sector procurement and IT organizations in the U.S. and UK. He has a keen interest in enabling better alignment between public sector organizations and their internal and external customers, through the use of digital enablement.