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  • Author or Editor: Sarah Morton x
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An impact assessment of research into children's concerns about their families and relationships found many ways research had been used in different sectors by different actors. Specific impacts from the research were harder to identify. However, instances where there were clear impacts highlighted the ways research users had adapted research to fit the context for research use in order to create impact. Research users continued to draw on the research for many years after publication, creating further impact as new policy or practice agendas arose.

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Barriers to using research in practice are well documented. This paper describes an innovative process developed by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships to address these barriers. We supported people to define what they needed to know; how existing evidence could help; and how to use evidence in practice. An action-focused evidence review process was developed to synthesise and appraise varied relevant literatures, and communicate this in meaningful, timely, relevant and action-focused ways. Both making evidence accessible and facilitating processes for deliberating evidence were essential in supporting evidence users to understand the extent and usefulness of evidence and identify implications for policy, practice and services.

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A meaningful connection between activities and outcomes is often vague or unexplored – but this magic ‘how’ change happens is essential for driving programmes and for understanding their impact. Outcome or impact maps are the core of the approach in this book, as the building block for setting out, understanding, learning about and evidencing change. This is one type of ‘theory of change’ approach which is common for understanding change in complex systems. We believe that process-driven theories of change are most effective for public services, and in this chapter we set out our version of this – outcome or impact mapping – and illustrate how they can be used at different levels.

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Picking up on the issues from Chapter 3 about getting the data, evidence and feedback needed to understand complex change, this chapter presents some practical ways to improve and use data. It includes how to undertake a data audit, filling gaps in data, and practical data collection techniques. It provides some examples of how these have been applied in different public services settings. It aims to help organisations get all of the data and information they need to evaluate their progress towards outcomes and demonstrate their impact.

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Public services sit in complex webs of programmes, policies and practices and are not in the control of any one organisation. Change happens through a web of interlinked and overlapping approaches and services, which makes it difficult to understand. Engaging with this complexity is essential for knowing whether any initiative is making a difference, but can be challenging. This chapter explores what needs to be taken into account to work within complex systems when seeking to understand and track outcomes and impact.

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Whether supporting people to move on in their lives, implementing new policy initiatives, providing training or spreading good practice, the evidence shows that the most effective approaches are those that are tailored to the specific context. Rather than ignoring it, trying to work well with the challenges and opportunities of any initiative’s context can help improve delivery and really make a difference to people and communities. It’s also essential for shaping how the initiative will make a difference, and for tracking that difference. This chapter discusses why context matters and sets out some practical ways of working effectively with the complex context in which anyone seeking to make a difference finds themselves.

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Being clear about the difference an initiative wants to make and the outcomes or the impacts of the work is the first step in knowing whether it is making a difference. Many organisations need to report to, or align with, multiple outcome frameworks and indicators. This can result in organisations feeling caught in a tangle of outcomes. Being able to navigate around this complex outcomes and impacts landscape is essential for anyone leading public services where they are expected to work towards, report on or be evaluated against outcomes or impacts. This is what we call ‘owning your outcomes or impacts’.

This chapter offers accessible ways to understand and operationalise outcomes and impacts and unpack some of the contradictions surrounding the use of outcomes and impacts within wider policy and funding systems.

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The journey to improving outcomes or maximising impacts is never over. Effective organisations that own their outcomes are always seeking to improve, reflect and learn, to align resources and develop systems and processes to make the best contribution possible. Taking time to systematically analyse and assess progress is a linchpin of this approach. This chapter outlines what is required to analyse, assess and track progress towards outcomes or impacts ahead of reporting, and shares some simple and accessible ways of thinking that can help even people with no experience of analysis get going.

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Building a strong contribution story that explains and can evidence the difference your work makes to people, policy, practice or communities is not an easy task. This chapter brings together learning from working with many organisations and clients, as well as the authors’ work in outcome and impact reporting, using the approach built on contribution analysis set out in this book. The chapter considers reporting in an outcome- or impact-focused way, for different audiences and purposes, with practical tips on how to do this well. This is the final part of the process described in Chapters 5 to 8. It considers reporting for learning and improvement as well as making impact claims.

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The approach to outcome and impact evaluation in this book works for the complex problems and issues that public services face. It has been used in settings such as health, social work and care, policy, international development, research, and children and adult services. There is more in common across these contrasting sectors and contexts than divides them in relation to outcome and impact evaluation. Whatever the setting, the key challenges remain: how to work well with complex contexts; how to understand and work well with outcomes and impacts; how to get the relevant data, evidence and feedback; and how to embed this in day-to-day work. This chapter explores those challenges and gives practical tips for overcoming them. It includes case studies of the approach in different organisations and settings.

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