Measurement for Learning: Values & Principles

We are a working group of ten pioneering local authorities focused on meaningful measurement, as part of the Upstream Collaborative, an active learning network of Local Government innovators supported by Nesta. This blog series sets forth a different measurement approach for public services centred on learning, and will culminate in a discussion paper later this summer. This approach has been shaped by our practical insights and experiences working in local government. 

We are from the following local authorities: Barking & Dagenham, Derbyshire, Gateshead, Huntingdonshire, Kirklees, Leeds, Greater Manchester, Oxford, Redcar & Cleveland, and York. John Burgoyne, from the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), serves as a listener and facilitator of the working group, and has gained our collective input to shape this blog series and the forthcoming discussion paper.


Mindsets over frameworks

In discussing what we wanted to create as a working group that would be as useful as possible for others who wanted to measure for learning, one of the first decisions we reached was that we did not want to create “just another impact evaluation framework.” Whilst a framework could tell you how and what to measure, we do not feel it is the most important starting point.

Instead of focusing on what local authorities should do to measure, we chose to focus on why they should measure – the underlying beliefs, values, and principles that make up a mindset oriented around learning. Drawing inspiration from New Operating Models and the Manifesto for a Better Government from our team at CPI, we started with the mindsets behind measurement, from which the how and what should naturally flow.

Doing describes “what” whereas Being explains “why”. Image adapted from Alex Carabi

This shift in focus is bigger than measurement. It is about a shift from tinkering with models and frameworks to challenging our fundamental values and principles. As this pandemic has shown, when protocols go out the window in a crisis, the underlying values and principles we have cultivated over time are critical to determining how we respond and new processes are put in place. Those that value trust will have a very different response than those that value control for instance.

Our beliefs, values, and principles

We are not saying that the beliefs, values, and principles we came up with are universal and should ring true no matter where you are measuring. Instead, we think it is important that communities and councils explicitly reflect on their mindsets, and collaboratively come up with values and principles that work for them. We are happy to share what has worked for us, but we encourage others to take their own journey, drawing on ours where helpful for inspiration.

The core beliefs we articulated represent a shift from “measurement for control” (which we described in our last post) to “measurement for learning”:

From these beliefs, we developed a set of shared values and principles. In this post, we will share what each of these means to us, and to make them real, we will draw on our own experiences to show what they look like in practice.

Trust

“The traditional approach involves imposing measurement targets about what we want to achieve for people. We are shifting towards collectively setting measures with people. Our frontline staff must feel empowered to own things – they know an individual or area best, we need to give them the freedom to lead the approach there and be accountable for that.”

– Hannah Elliott, Transformation Lead at Kirklees and working group member

Given the complexity of the problems we face in the public sector, it does not make sense for people far removed from the ground to determine what and how we measure. Instead, it is important we trust those who are closest to the problems, giving staff interacting with residents more autonomy and giving the public mechanisms to hold government accountable. That does not mean excluding senior leaders and external experts from the measurement process, but rather, shifting their role to be more embedded and focused on enabling and support, as opposed to independent and focused on setting measurable goals.

In Leeds, this value of trust is brought to life through their approach to Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). The ABCD model assumes that given the tools and the opportunity, small groups of local residents can change the things that they believe need changing in their community better than anyone else. As Lisa Keenan, the Commissioning Officer and one of our working group members, has described:

People know best what’s important to them and their lives.

ABCD requires a shift in focus for service providers and funding agencies to move from trying to ‘solve’ the needs and deficiencies of neighbourhoods to starting with the communities’ assets and the skills and passions of the people living there. To understand these assets and skills, “Community Builders” are embedded in neighbourhoods and use different types of measurement approaches. See more detail on the role of community builders, and the measurement tools they use below:

Authenticity

“The focus of performance and impact measurement is too often heavily weighted towards traditional, often regulatory led and service specific frameworks and measures. We are interested in an alternative approach that can be focused around what is important to a person and supports us to experiment and learn continuously.”

– Rhodri Rowlands, Head of Programmes Community Solutions at Barking and Dagenham and working group member

In order to better understand residents’ experiences, we need better ways to capture the authentic voices of residents. Mike Richardson, Transformation Programme Manager at York and one of the working group members, led an adult social care transformation programme that took a strengths-based approach to measurement, enabling staff to have meaningful conversations with residents rather than completing transactional checklists. As Mike describes:

Professionals are free to have meaningful, collaborative conversations promoting the use of strengths, resources, and potential to achieve desired outcomes and solutions to maximise a person’s quality of life.

While this programme embodies all of the values and principles of measurement for learning, the emphasis on empathetic conversations enables social workers to put authenticity at the heart – capturing the authentic voices of residents and understanding what matters to them. See more about the approach, and the results it achieved below:

Curiosity

“Measurement should not be a one-off piece of work done by an independent evaluator at the end of the program to justify costs or how good it was. Rather, everyone should see themselves as an evaluator every day and ask themselves: ‘What have I learned? How have I improved? What insights have I gained to enable me to improve?’ If measurement is only talked about in boardrooms and is feared by those doing the work, we are not going to get to meaningful measurement.”

– Dave Kelly, Head of Reform, Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Dave talks about curiosity being not just an important value, but a trait he aims to cultivate amongst his team. He wants everyone – from senior managers to frontline staff – to be reflecting on their work, seeking out what they don’t know, and testing assumptions with an open mind. 

As Nesta’s ongoing research into how councils are responding to Covid-19, has shown:

It is imperative that local authorities take the time to reflect on the changes that are occurring and to identify the things that they want to preserve and let go of as we emerge from this complex crisis.

An excellent example of how to reflect comes from Oxford City Council and Oxford Hub, where they are trialling learning pods, sessions designed to capture lessons learned through regular, ongoing reflection. Learning pods are inspired by Chris Bolton’s viral blog post on deploying learning & innovation teams alongside Covid-19 response teams to capture the learning. 

In response to Covid-19, the council has been increasingly partnering with Oxford Hub through Oxford Together, which mobilises volunteers to support the Covid-19 response through activities such as food shopping, collecting prescriptions, conducting social phone calls, and more. While metrics are used to track the quantity of their response (e.g., how many prescriptions collected, food parcels delivered), the learning pods are designed to enable open-ended reflection, learning, and improvement. Reflecting on their experiences in pairs, staff and volunteers who interact directly with residents feel comfortable sharing what has gone well and importantly what could be improved. See more about how the Oxford teams are using this approach below:

What gets in the way of learning

Whilst these examples show how it is indeed possible to bring measurement for learning into your local authority, we have encountered obstacles that are worth explicitly naming: a culture of performance management, influence of external actors, and the view that learning is a ‘nice to have’.

Starting with values and principles

In examining how you can overcome these obstacles and how you approach measurement more broadly, we encourage you to consider how your values are or are not prioritised. Whilst trust, authenticity, and curiosity can offer some inspiration, we do not claim they are the only ones or necessarily the ones right for you.

We challenge local authorities and other organisations to collectively shape their own, working with residents and staff interacting directly with residents, and to share them using the hashtag: #MeasurementforLearning.

By naming these and sharing how we are putting them into practice, we can spur the mindset shift taking place in the public sector. From control towards learning, from top-down to community-led, from closed to open – this mindset shift is bigger than measurement and represents a movement that has in many ways been catalysed by the pandemic crisis. Through our collective efforts on the ground, this blog series, and the forthcoming discussion paper, we make the case for why this change is needed and how it is already being brought about. 

As Anna Randle, the brilliant Chief Executive of Collaborate, has said: “Using learning from Covid-19 to create a new normal will not be easy, and we know that many of the usual constraints will remain, not least the financial challenge. But if there is collective recognition that the chance is now, then let’s accept the challenge, focus on what this work really looks like, and gather the immense energy, determination and optimism that have got us this far to build for what comes next.”