This blog post outlines the whys and hows of measuring outcomes for public libraries and has been developed from the introductory presentation made at a recent workshop for The Libraries Taskforce in London by Dr Darren Smart, Strategic Manager for Operations with Kent County Council’s Libraries, Registration & Archives Service.
Check out his insights below.
Why Measure Outcomes?
Most organisations are outcome focused, including local and national government. Your Authority will have a vision and a strategy defined as outcomes to deliver, and your Service will be expected to contribute to these.
By measuring outcomes rather than simple inputs/outputs you will be able to:
1. Demonstrate more effectively how your library contributes to the delivery of your Authority’s evidence-based plan for addressing local needs which will be defined in terms of desired outcomes.
2. Be a more effective advocate for your services, using the stories you have collected to challenge traditional perceptions by illustrating the impact across a wide range of key outcomes.
3. Make better bids for funding through commissions or grants, as awarding bodies are outcome focused.
4. Deliver more effective partnership working as it is easier to identify common objectives/outcomes and so remain focussed on the win-win.
Put simply, in practical terms measuring outcomes is vital for demonstrating the impact, and thus value, of the services you deliver.
The Principles of Measuring Outcomes
The key principle is that to measure outcomes you need both qualitative and quantitative data. At its heart, qualitative data is simply customer feedback that describes the impact a service or activity has on people’s lives. The base unit for this is the individual case study which tells the story of what happened and how that made a difference to the person.
In isolation, these are simply nice stories, at best suitable for a soundbite. However, collectively they become a powerful body of evidence which demonstrate the effects are specific and reproducible, thus making the data trustworthy and convincing.
Quantitative data is all about the numbers and include the metrics most librarians are used to measuring, e.g. loans or visits. This type of data is more empirical and thus seems more trustworthy. However, to be useful the data must be predictive of the outcome and, unfortunately, the causality is often assumed rather than proven. For example, despite the prevalent myth, overall loans are only a transactional measure and not an indication of improving literacy in the community.
Nevertheless, where causality has been proven in large scale, well controlled published studies, e.g. the benefits of Books on Prescription, the quantitative data can be used as a surrogate measure to evidence impact on an outcome. This is then a very efficient way of measuring outcomes.
Of course, it is possible to quantify qualitative data by collecting and collating enough case studies, and this is often the best method to employ if trying to measure a broad spectrum of outcomes.
In practical terms this means that any approach must:
1.Be simple & easy for all frontline staff to implement.
2.Systematic, to quickly gather case studies to build an effective database.
3.Engage staff to embed an outcomes-focused culture to ensure sustainability.