Image: Celine McStravick of the National Children’s Bureau, left, with Mark Friedman; Kieran Drayne, former Colin Early Intervention Project Manager and Annie Armstrong, Manager of Colin Neighbourhood Partnership
Celine McStravick, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB NI) tells VIEW editor Brian Pelan that she is delighted that Stormont’s draft Programme for Government will be using Mark Friedman’s model of Outcomes-Based Accountability (OBA™). “For the first time ever,” she said, “we are very clear about what outcomes we want for the population and how we are going to measure them”.
On page eight of the draft Programme for Government in Northern Ireland, credit is given to Mark Friedman, the Director of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The quote reads:“The approach taken in this Framework draws on the techniques set out by Mark Friedman in his book ‘Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough’, which describes a range of practical techniques supporting an increased outcome focus in public policy.”
Ms McStravick is an ardent supporter of Mr Friedman’s Outcomes-Based Accountability (OBA™) model and is delighted that it is embedded in the draft Programme for Government.
“I am positively evangelical about OBA™. In fact, I’m usually evangelical about most things,” she said.
Originally from Portadown, Ms McStravick has spent most of her career working in local government. “My passion now is making a difference. I was completely inspired by the chance to work in the UK charity, the National Childrens’ Bureau (NCB). I started working in the organisation six years ago and I am based in Belfast. When I was appointed as director of NCB in Northern Ireland, I had two staff. We were a pure research organisation. My job as director was to make us much more relevant in Northern Ireland and to respond to the need that we could see. We could see at that time that we were not using evidence enough to see what works for children and families. We were not really developing our leadership skills and setting out our own incomes.
“We were very much being led by what Westminster was giving us. I needed to start manipulating and guiding discussions with politicians, civil servants and the community/voluntary sector on what could and should be different for children and young people.”
I asked Celine how have things changed since she took up her position.
“Things are now 100 per cent different. We now employ about 11 people in Northern Ireland. It’s a mixed bag of researchers and people with a community development/policy background. We work with babies, children and young people up to the age of 21.
“Our work in this team could be commissioned work from government departments. For example, we were commissioned by the NI Executive to write the first ever E-Safety strategy for children and young people. It was about how to keep them safe when they are online.
“We do not deliver services to children and young people. We are here to support and change policy and services for them. We are not a Barnardo’s.
“In a way that sets the NCB in a unique place. We can actually comment from a very robust-based evidence perspective. We are very proud of the Programme for Government and our role in it. For the first time ever we are very clear about what outcomes we want for the population and how we are going to measure them.”
She said that previous Programmes were just a list of actions. “This Programme doesn’t list actions yet. What is important is the process they are using and that’s back to Mark Friedman.
“Mark Friedman’s book, ‘Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough’ was developed from his frustration as a finance guy. Money was being constantly spent and the only measurement of impact was the money spent in a year.
“His book starts from asking what is the outcome of what you are trying to do, how do you know you are going to get that outcome. That is your indicator and how are you going to measure it.
“You can’t move onto the next stage until you get an agreement over those outcomes and indicators. As the process moves on, you need bravery, you need people to stand by what they have signed up for, because there are going to be really tough decisions to be made down the line.”
I asked Ms McStravick how an outcomes-based approach would work in light of the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, agreed by the Stormont Executive last year, which signalled a series of funding cuts to be made across all government departments. On page 19, it reads: ‘The Executive is undertaking a programme of Public Sector Reform, designed to maximise available resources and deliver enhanced services to citizens. Current reform activities are building upon cumulative savings of £3.7 billion achieved in the seven years from 2008-15.”
Ms McStravick replied: “I always say as money gets short, ideas need to get better. When there was lots of money, we could just throw it out and hope for the best. As I always say in my workshops, it was like holy water, cross your fingers and hope that it does something.
“When you have a Programme for Government like this you embed the value of the impact. You are interested in making a difference with the money. That means you come to a point in your decision making where you should be able to say is that making a difference and if the answer is No, then we need to stop doing it. The outcomes-based approach means that no one person or group can do it alone. You need engagement with other stake-holders.”
I asked the NCB NI director does the OBA™ model have the power to change outcomes in economically disadvantaged working-class areas.
“I think at the heart of this model will be data and information. I think traditionally we have used data when we wanted to and avoided it when we didn’t. Because we were much more comfortable in the green and orange arguments. My hope would be that the OBA™ model will provide a neutral space for discussion, irrespective of religion.
Ms McStravick uses an area of work which NCB NI was involved in to underline her argument. “Groups in the Colin area of west Belfast were saying that despite the millions of pounds being spent in their area they could not see an improvement for children and young people in this area. They had well below average in GCSE results, had high teenage pregnancies and domestic violence issues. So money wasn’t the answer. When you say to me that the money is going to be less, I say good. I think people have used the money to divert attention away from the real issues. Part of the OBA™ model, when you are in discussions with stake-holders, is for them to think of one thing that is low cost or no cost which could make a difference.
“In a population of over 20,000 in the Colin area, we found there were more than 90 different services for families and young people. When we asked the question, what impact are you having, that’s were the problem was. There were lots of doing activity. But how do you know you were making a difference? That’s what we couldn’t find out.
“We started using an outcomes-based approach in the Colin area. They wanted their children to feel safe and secure; to be healthy and achieve educationally. They then agreed to focus on six outcomes.
“As with the Programme for Government, we are going to measure impact along the way. There are three questions.
• What are we doing? • How are we doing it? • Is anyone better off?”
I asked Celine had there been a change in educational attainment in the Colin area since the OBA™ approach was introduced?
“We can see a slight improvement. You can now see the individual level of each child and the impact. It means that midwives and others, when they come together, can see the data. “Some of the programmes invested in were not having an impact. That’s when it’s time for a critical conversation to be held.”
As our interview drew to a close, I asked Ms McStravick that if one was to visit these areas of high social deprivation in 15 years, would they see a substantial change because of the OBA™ model?
“I think you should,” she replied. “But you are asking me to look into the future and I’m much more of an evidence-based person. I’ve worked with a health trust who don’t have the same funding problems as the community/voluntary sector and who were asked by the Department of Health to cut five per cent of their budget. How do they decide what five per cent to cut if they don’t have a clear outcomes-based approach and how do they measure it?
I also was curious to know should the community/voluntary sector be concerned about the OBA™ approach by Government.
“My response is that the community/voluntary sector is there to make a change. They are not there to keep themselves in jobs. They are there to change people’s lives and communities. This framework helps them demonstrate that. In a way it can absolutely build their organisation, because they can demonstrate that in a more accessible way.”
She believes that Mark’s approach is hard to implement. “And it should be hard. People who start to use will come to a point where their brain hurts because you have to make a decision. It is much easier to surround yourself with paper and have strategy upon strategy. OBA™ has a really neutral space for conversations to implement change.
“But it takes a long time to do it. And you need to keep people with you along the way.”