When we talk about outcomes, we are referring to the results of a policy, activity, project or programme, or investment, as experienced by a stakeholder of that action or activity.
Outcomes are most easily understood as the changes that are experienced by stakeholders because of an activity; or as the prevention of change where this is appropriate. Outcomes can be positive, meaning the stakeholder experiences a positive change as a result of an action, or negative. Outcomes can be intended, and they can also be unintended. (In the case ofservice s commissioned and delivered by public and third sector agencies we’d expect most negative outcomes to be unintended).
Stakeholders can be aware that they experience outcomes as a result of an activity (service users of a particular service, for example, can reasonably be expected to understand that they benefit or are affected by the service in some way), or they may not even be aware that an activity exists but may experience an outcome none the less (in the case of a project supporting a reduction in anti social behavior in a certain area, for example, where local residents may notice the outcome but not be aware of the project).
Some outcomes can be easily understood and evidenced; these are often referred to as ‘hard’ outcomes. Others can relate to the experience of individuals and concern their feelings about something, or their attitudes or other less tangible internal change. These outcomes are sometimes referred to as ‘soft’ outcomes, and can be more challenging to measure – though are very often considered to be at least as important, if not more important, than some of the more tangible results of an activity.
Outcomes and Outputs
Outcomes and Outputs are two very different things, and the two terms are often confused. An easy way to distinguish the two is to consider outputs as tangible, countable products of an activity. Outcomes are the changes that result for stakeholders because of the activity.
For example: ‘Project A’ is a training programme designed to support young people disadvantaged in the labour market to achieve qualifications, gain experience and ultimately find employment. The project provides access to a range of training and placements in local businesses for trainees.
The outputs of Project A for trainees could include: number of hours on work placement; number of new qualifications achieved.
The outputs of Project A for a funder or commissioner could include: number of young people provided with training; number of young people supported into employment.
The outcomes of Project A for trainees might be: increased confidence working alongside other people; better qualified and better opportunities to gain work; improved skills and experience in a particular role.
The outcomes of Project A for the funder or commissioner might be: reduction in youth unemployment in line with area strategy; a better understanding of the support young people require to improve their employment prospects; achievement of value for money through funding a successful programme.
Although the outputs and outcomes of Project A are related, the outputs represent tangible products of the activity, and the outcomes represent the results of the activity, or the changes experienced by stakeholders as a result of the activity taking place.
Whereas outputs are usually tangible and can be seen and counted, they don’t often describe the experience of stakeholders in a meaningful way. Just because an individual has undergone a number of hours of training, for example, doesn’t mean they are better prepared to find work, or that they are more confident in applying for work. Understanding the outputs of an activity only tells you about the activity; it doesn’t tell you much about the experience of the stakeholders. The outcomes experienced by a stakeholder give a far better picture of this, but are conversely often more challenging to measure or evidence.
Outcomes lead to Outcomes
When thinking about the outcomes of an activity for different stakeholders, it’s important to recognise that while a funder or commissioner might be working to achieve long-term change for a group of people or community through supporting delivery of certain services, the services themselves are often supporting the generation of more immediate outcomes for service users. It can sometimes be challenging to see the relationships between these ‘higher level’ strategic outcomes, and service level outcomes. There can also seem to be a disjoin between immediate outcomes experienced by service users, say, and the longer term outcomes that funders or commissioners are interested in supporting.
It’s important to recognise that, put simply, one outcome can lead to another, and then another, and so on. This idea is most easily described as a kind of ‘chain of events’, and although sometimes it can be challenging to evidence these relationships, it is usually intuitive that a cause and effect relationship does exist between them.
For example:With ‘Project A’, a number of trainees left the programme and entered into employment. A greater number did not find employment immediately. However, the majority reported outcomes of ‘feeling more confident working with other people’ and ‘being more positive about applying for training and employment in the future’. As a result of these outcomes, trainees were more active in seeking employment and applying for work, and consequently over time a greater number of the trainees eventually found employment than had been initially reported, achieving the objectives of the public sector body that had procured the service.
Often times, it is the relationships between immediate outcomes for one stakeholder, and the longer term, more ‘strategic’ outcomes for other stakeholders, which when uncovered offer insight into the real social impact resulting from a given activity, project or service.