The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 19, 2015

Mapping our way to better outcomes for kids and families

February 19, 2015

A version of this post also appeared on the Drive Impact blog.

Growing up, although my parents took turns driving the family car, my mom was always the one who made sure we actually got to where we were going. For all his non-spatial strengths, my dad could get lost driving around the block. (The bad news for me: I inherited my dad’s directional sense. The good news: Google Maps.)

What does this have to with social policy and using public funding to achieve better results for kids and families? Like any family road trip, unless you have planned ahead, set your destination, and mapped how to get there, you may find yourself spinning your (policy) wheels.

A number of exciting new policy developments are aiming to better align public spending on social interventions and services with the outcomes they hope to achieve. From Pay for Success and social impact bonds to Performance Partnership Pilots, the current policy landscape is marked by innovative approaches with support across the political spectrum.

While policymakers, practitioners, and researchers are right to be energized by the potential of these approaches, an important precursor will be creating a map to arrive at the target destination: a renewed focus on outcomes.

The Urban Institute, a research organization dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy, will be launching a new initiative focused on building the tools and supports necessary to create the conditions for successful Pay for Success deals. Approaches such as Pay for Success can be strong vehicles for achieving better outcomes for struggling kids and families.

Urban’s intent is to improve outcomes and make government spending more efficient. We have a longer brief describing the ideal strategic planning process for Pay for Success, but here is the TL;DR version.

Step one: Understand the needs of the target population.

Which children, youth, and/or adults are not meeting their potential or are most in need of services? Data – including looking at outcomes and cost data for different age groups – represent a critical starting point for your journey to identify the highest priorities. Stakeholders might also think about additional data sources such as well-being surveys, as well as alternative methods of evaluation when data are not available or appropriate. For example, communities that participate in the Communities That Care program use a targeted assessment for youth to identify risks and factors that can predict future problems and drive service spending.

Step two: Identify the target outcomes.

If assembling critical data on the target population helps create the broad outlines of your map, identifying the target outcome(s) of your investment will give you directions to your destination. For instance, if we want to drive healthy transitions to adulthood for a specific youth population, there are a number of different influences to consider. Birth weight, home learning environment, parents’ education, mother’s physical and mental health, teachers, educational attainment, risky behavior, and socioemotional development are only some of the key drivers of outcomes for children. Where available, data can help establish priorities based on kids’ strengths and needs – and assess where investments can go the farthest.

Step three: Find evidence-based solutions.

Once a target outcome is identified, the next step is to find the best ways to reach your goal. Evidence-based solutions, which are programs, policies, or practices that have been objectively evaluated and found to impact specific outcomes, are one of many approaches to implementing programs. While the reality is that most programs have not been evaluated, there are a number of clearinghouses that focus solely on disseminating information on the existing evidence for interventions.

Useful sites include the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, and ChildTrends clearinghouse of programs that work. The Pew Results’ First Initiative also recently published a comprehensive look at programs listed in eight different clearinghouses across many different outcome areas. While there are many roads to each destination, evidence-based solutions can provide critical information we need when picking the best route to success.

Step four: Implement programs.

At some point, you have to start driving to get where you are going. The implementation of evidence-based programming is inevitably challenging, and it will be important to seek out high-quality service providers that can drive you in the right direction. One example is the group, Evidence-Based Associates, which focuses on delivering proven programs to target juvenile delinquency at scale. Evidence-based or outcomes-based roadmaps are ultimately dependent upon the performance of providers and the effectiveness of implementation.

Step five: Continuous improvement and evaluation.

Service provision is not a one-step process. It is always wise to check the map along the way to make sure you are headed in the right direction. Monitoring and rewarding fidelity to evidence-based programs provides the strongest possible chance of ensuring positive results are being achieved. High-quality providers and investors (public and private) will want to consistently assess and evaluate the ongoing performance of selected programs, as well as evaluate their ultimate achievement in addressing the target outcomes. Organizations like the Nurse-Family Partnership collect data, conduct analysis, and share information with local implementers to make sure they are on the right track.

Ultimately, while the map and the destination may look different for different efforts to improve outcomes for kids and families, what matters most is that we work together to make sure we are all headed in the same direction so that our collective investments can go as far as possible toward helping us reach our shared goal of improving the lives of children, youth, and families.

Photo: (AP Photo/ Steve Ruark)

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