At the recent convening of eight cross-sector partnerships involved in The Integration Initiative, Erika Bernabei of the Results Leadership Group, LLC and Living Cities’ own JaNay Queen introduced our site partners from cities around the country to the Results-Based Accountability (RBA) framework. The session was also an opportunity for Living Cities staff in attendance to consider how this framework can help us to bring precision and discipline to our own work.
RBA is a disciplined way of thinking and taking action that communities can use to improve the lives of children, youth, families, adults and the community as a whole. The framework provides a process through which to improve the quality and effectiveness of programs, policies and services by starting with ends and working backward towards means.
Folks in the room were very excited to dig into this process and Erika and JaNay focused much of the session on supporting each of the partnerships in applying the framework to examine their real-life big, hairy, audacious goals and related indicators. While each of the city partnerships worked together, I got to talking with some of my colleagues about what is most exciting to us about RBA. Here are my three big takeaways and some thinking about how they apply to our work:
1) Identify Your ‘Customers’ and Define Performance Measures Accordingly.
The RBA process pushes organizations to articulate the role they play in community-wide impact by identifying specific customers who benefit from their services. This might seem like common sense, but the questions that the framework poses as part of this process to determine whether customers are better off are elegant and powerful in their simplicity: How much did we do?; How well did we do it?; Is anyone better of? Of course the last question is the most important, but asking all three of the questions helps to identify where there might be disconnects between effort and results.
At Living Cities, we think in systems and eco-systems. We are constantly asking ourselves how issues that impact the lives of low-income people are interrelated. For example, we know that connecting people to jobs is about more than job training programs (though job training programs are certainly important). To ensure greater and more equitable access to opportunity, we also need to examine cradle to career education systems, transit, access to technology, and policies around hiring people with criminal records. While it is necessary to think in this way, we must also be very clear about what results we will hold ourselves accountable for. We have done a lot of work over the last few years to articulate those results and to tie performance measures to them, and the RBA framework provides concrete steps to help us to continuously improve.
2) Disaggregate Data.
The importance of disaggregating data by race, ethnicity, poverty, gender, etc. was emphasized as being of vital importance for any effort seeking community-wide impact. This point is very much related to the need to identify and be very clear about who your customers are. Articulating desired results that bring benefits to all is a trap that is very easy to fall into—people want to be inclusive and to avoid controversy. But, those kinds of results are often too vague to be meaningful. They don’t allow communities to really hone in on who is being left behind and where concentrated efforts can gave the greatest impact.
At Living Cities, our mission of working with cross-sector leaders in cities to build a new type of urban practice aimed at dramatically improving the economic well-being of low-income people requires that we understand how race, place, class, and other factors affect access to opportunity. We know that ‘one size fits all’ is not good enough. Indeed, we are in the midst of a process to apply a racial equity and inclusion lens to our entire portfolio to identify ways to strengthen our ability to address the needs of our ‘customers.’ The RBA framework reminds us that this exploration must be grounded in data and that we will need to identify reliable sources of quality data for our desired indicators.
3) Understand the Story Behind the Data.
The RBA process pushes folks to dig deep to identify the root causes of what is revealed in the data. It is not enough to ask ourselves ‘why?’ once, but rather we must keep asking ourselves why in the same way that a doctor would investigate the causes of symptoms before making a diagnosis and prescribing treatment. The RBA literature emphasizes that this is a step that is often given short shrift.
We have seen how not asking ‘why?’ enough can lead to the implementation of strategies that do not achieve the desired results because they fail to consider all contributing factors. For example, in the course of developing The Integration Initiative, the Living Cities team was repeatedly struck by gaps in what we have come to refer to as “capital absorption capacity”—the ability of communities to make effective use of different forms of capital to support the needs of under-served communities. We thought that securing the capital would be enough. Building a practice around understanding the story behind the data would help us to design better strategies from the outset.
The three elements of the RBA framework that I list here are the ones that stood out the most to me, but it is important to understand the process in its entirety. This blog is meant simply to highlight how RBA thinking can be applied to the kind of complex systems change work that Living Cities advances and supports. For more information, please visit Results Leadership Group’s website, and stay tuned for more from us on RBA. Our staff and partners were excited to continue to learn about and apply the thinking, and we will be sharing along the way.