Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Build The Enabling Infrastructure

“I don’t care how we’ve always done it in the past; if we can do it smarter this time, let’s do it smarter this time.”

--President Barack Obama, February 22, 2016

To achieve a more outcomes-driven social sector, it is essential to both find and fund what works – that is, to identify and sustain the policies, interventions and tools that achieve measurably better results.  Too often, however, the processes that allow discovery and replication of outcomes-centered solutions are one-offs that have required uncommon commitment involving creative work-arounds, hard-to-attain waivers from common practice, political capital, active support at the highest levels, and other special circumtances. In other words, doing what works often faces an arduous path to implementation. 

This is because the systems into which supporters introduce these solutions were not designed to prioritize outcomes. Evidence is too rarely valued, funding of service providers typically focuses on compliance and outputs rather than outcomes, and the tools to track outcomes and capacity to deliver them are rarely in place.  Simply put, the purpose of social services funding (better outcomes) is often misaligned with how the social services infrastructure is set up.

As a result, proven, high-impact approaches have little comparative advantage to receive funding.  Compounding this dearth of incentives to engage in what works is the presence of systemic obstacles to implementation: many of the approaches that achieve better outcomes, such as human-centered, cross-silo collaboration, face systemic barriers to success.  These unintentional barriers – including, among others, emphasizing compliance over outcomes, limiting reimbursable activities, and costly reporting requirements unrelated to outcomes - distract from outcomes, disincentivize their pursuit, discourage innovation, and thereby inhibit progress.  These systemic barriers can reinforce one another at every level of government.

In order for outcomes-focused approaches to consistently scale, we must adapt current systems to develop an enabling infrastructure in which outcomes-based solutions are a natural fit rather than a square peg in a round hole. To do this, government at all levels must seek to remove barriers that discourage outcomes-focused approaches. At the same time, they must introduce new incentives that proactively encourage them.  Recognizing government staff and service providers themselves have adapted operations to the systems in which they operate, a shift to outcomes-driven activity requires additional support.  Equally important to removing barriers and incentivizing outcomes, government and the social sector must work together to build capacity of public systems and service providers to perform towards outcomes.

The Office of Social Innovation has worked with partners at every level, and across silos, to begin building an enabling infrastructure that removes barriers, incentivizes the achievement of outcomes, and invests in the capacity of government and service providers to be more results-driven: 

Removing Barriers

Removing barriers to cross-silo collaboration

Cross-silo collaboration enables more holistic approach to addressing needs and maximizing chances for success. Too often, systemic barriers prevent these types collaboration and those in need receive fragmented services and uncoordinated care.  We’ve sought to remove barriers to outcomes-focused collaboration through new initiatives that we expect will create proof points that pave the way to expand and normalize such approaches.

  • Data-Driven Justice Initiative – Among other things, our DDJ initiative seeks to reduce unnecessary incarceration of those with mental health challenges.  Recognizing this population is often in and out of jails, hospitals, shelters, substance abuse treatment and other services, care is typically uncoordinated, and as a result gets poor results despite high cost.  DDJ’s approach of sharing data and coordinating care across systems has attracted 140 chief executives of cities, counties and states who want to get better results while saving money.
  • Performance Partnership Pilots (P3) – We worked to support P3, which offers unique opportunity to test innovative, cost-effective, and outcome-focused strategies for improving results for at-risk, disconnected youth. P3 allows communities to pilot better ways of improving outcomes by giving them additional flexibility in using discretionary funds across multiple federal programs. This model for pooling funds, combined with strengthened accountability for results, is designed to ease administrative burden and promote better education, employment, and other key outcomes for youth. From supporting young moms and their young children with a two-generation approach to helping foster care youth transition successfully from high school to college and career, the initial nine pilots serve a total of roughly 10,000 disconnected youth from urban, rural, and tribal communities around the country. Through a second and third round of pilots, nearly twenty more state, local, or tribal communities will have the opportunity to propose bold new ideas for how they would use P3 flexibility to transform the way they deliver services and improve outcomes for disconnected youth.

Federal authorities to remove barriers to evidence-based and outcomes-focused approaches

  • Uniform Guidance – The Office of Social Innovation has worked to develop and promote several new federal provisions that can reduce burden and allow greater flexibility to focus on outcomes.  The federal government has several authorities to remove barriers and waive restrictions that get in the way of collaborative, cost-effective, evidence-based, outcomes-focused approaches.  The recently published Uniform Guidance highlights several such authorities. One area of promise offered by the Uniform Guidance clarifies federal agencies to offer fixed amount awards.  Federal award approaches often emphasize cost-reimbursement and prescribed activities over outcomes.  Through fixed amount awards, these priorities are flipped. Funding is provided “without regard to actual costs incurred under the federal award” but based on results.   

Federal Grantee Experience Initiative

The Office of Social Innovation convened and engaged with more than 40 federal grantees to review common challenges and barriers encountered in the federal grantee experience and to identify opportunities for developing more efficient ways local governments and community-based organizations can perform and report on federal grants.

  • Simplifying reporting while finding ways for it to add value - Reporting requirements of federal grantees can often be time consuming, costly, and redundant, presenting a burden on service providers that distracts from a focus on outcomes. Recognizing the opportunity of grant-reporting technology to reduce reporting redundancy, we are working with the federal government’s technology service provider, 18F, and the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to develop a pilot grant to simplify reporting while finding ways for it to add value rather than distract.  The pilot platform will streamline the grantee reporting experience while providing useful data back to grantees such that reporting becomes a tool grantees can use to assess performance.
  • Encouraging outcomes contracting – Federal programs often seek certain outcomes but tightly prescribe the activities a grantee may undertake to achieve those outcomes.  Through our Grantee Experience Initiative, we surfaced a common complaint among federal grantees that they are often unable to provide the ideal service for a client because it is not reimbursable under an award.  The Office of Social Innovation has worked to advance outcomes contracting models like Pay for Success to allow for additional latitude for service providers.  Early experience shows that outcomes contracting provides grantees a great deal of flexibility, increasing their ability to give a client what they need, achieving better results more cost effectively

Incentivizing Outcomes

One of the most powerful way to advance a more outcomes-driven government and social sector is to incentivize them.  At every level of government, laws, regulations, guidance, contracts, and grant agreements can be shaped to reward the achievement of outcomes.  Through these mechanisms, we can permit, encourage, and even require a focus on outcomes. Ideally increased outcomes accountability comes along with reduced process and compliance burden unrelated to outcomes.  We have worked with Congress, federal agencies, and state and local partners to begin to encourage these shifts.  For instance, several new legislative authorities permit, encourage and sometimes require outcomes programing and evidence of outcomes: 

  • New authorities for outcomes contracting: For the first time, the federal workforce statute, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, explicitly permits states and workforce boards to engage in pay for performance outcomes contracting, an authority of over $300 million per year.  In addition, the new federal education legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows Pay for Success contracting in at-risk youth, student support and academic enrichment.
  • Discretionary grant incentives around evidence: Several agencies now include evidence of effectiveness as a meaningful scoring factor in grant programs.  For instance, evidence comprises 12% of the total scoring value for applicants for AmeriCorps support.  ESSA requires the Department of Education to give priority to applicants demonstrating strong, moderate, or promising levels of evidence across several programs.  
  • Requiring evidence-based activity: ESSA requires states to include evidence-based interventions in action plans to improve low-performing schools.

Building Capacity

Public sector and social service providers have built their operations around an outputs and compliance-focused system. While removing barriers to and incentivizing outcomes is critical to building a results-driven social sector, it will also be necessary to reorient capacity to track and perform to outcomes.  When programs focus on outcomes, they better address the intent of the laws that enable them, and better honor the work of the public and social sector employees who deliver services. The Office of Social Innovation has worked to advanced several polices and initiatives to support public and social sector capacity to focus on results.  Selected highlights include:

  • Funding Overhead Costs to Enhance Capacity and Performance – Reorienting programs around outcomes will require increased investment in capacity, talent, and tools like data and evidence building.  Too often, however, nonprofit service providers have limited overhead and administrative resources.  We have worked to secure and promote new federal guidance providing service providers greater funds for such administrative, or “indirect” costs.  Nonprofits that do not have a negotiated indirect cost rate now have the right to charge a de minimis 10% of direct costs of service delivery. Several studies indicate that failure to receive the full cost of services harms the sustainability and effectiveness of nonprofit organizations. This capital allows nonprofits receiving grants or contracts to come closer to covering the full costs of their programs, as well as invest in their own infrastructure, including data systems, performance measurement, talent, and growth. 
  • Outcomes-Focused Technical Assistance  An important and underutilized tool for advancing what works for communities and families is technical assistance (TA).  The Office of Social Innovation worked with stakeholders to develop a framing concept for how TA can better help government and service providers achieve outcomes. The Outcomes-Focused Technical Assistance concept focuses on the potential to deploy TA resources to help recipients use data and evidence to achieve measurably better results through:
    • Identifying the most important outcomes
    • Implementing evidence-based policies and programs
    • Using data to inform service delivery
  • Social Innovation Grants to Build Data Capacity – Access to data is essential for designing and implementing an outcomes contract.  We have worked with the Social Innovation Fund at CNCS to design and launch a first-of-their-kind grant programs to help local communities and service providers access, enhance the quality of, and use administrative data to improve outcomes.  Through the Social Innovation Fund’s Administrative Data Pilot and Data Readiness grant programs, communities will be better able to access and interpret data that will help them target services to those most in need. They will also be better positioned to use data in real time during service delivery to learn, course correct, and continually improve.
  • Evidence Clearinghouses – Evidence of what works only matters to the extent it is acted on.  The Office of Social Innovation has worked closely with agencies and think tanks to disseminate and promote evidence based policies and practices, including through evidence clearinghouses.  Over the course of the Obama Administration, the federal government has invested in growing the number and depth of such clearinghouses, such the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse and Department of Labor’s Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research.  We’ve also worked with agencies to build increased human-centered aspects into clearinghouses, so that practitioners and policymakers can more easily find the information they need.