Solving Problems vs. Addressing Needs




David Wilkinson, Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, presented a keynote and session at last week’s Mission Capital Conference. The session, co-presented with Fraser Nelson, Director of Data and Innovation of the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office was titled “Social Innovation Trends Transforming Our Sector” and spoke to how national and local government supports outcomes-based solutions to make differences in communities across the U.S.

The Definition of Insanity

At the Mission Capital Conference David Wilkinson discussed President Obama’s top social priority around driving equity within communities. David referenced one of the President’s favorite quotes on social innovation, “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, and expect different results.”

Complex issues cannot be solved by implementing the same failed approaches, and this is the thinking behind the White House Office of Social Innovation, the largest domestic policy office of the federal government.

The federal government has a social service budget of $800 billion. Meanwhile entrenched social issues persist, which means as a society we’re not meeting the current need. David proposes that in order to spend smarter we need to focus on outcomes rather than outputs, something that we nonprofit professionals understand intimately. For example, measuring the number of people in a homeless shelter on a given night, or “heads in beds” (output) does not speak to whether these people are achieving long-term living solutions (outcomes). Measuring how many veterans suffering from PTSD are given professional job training (output) doesn’t prove whether these individuals are able to obtain and maintain jobs (outcome).

It’s time to turn theories into practice; it’s time to change our mind set from addressing a need to solving a problem. But as session co-presenter Fraser Nelson shared, change is rife with barriers.

In creating lasting change there are two major barriers to overcome:

1. Financial Resources

Understanding what you are trying to achieve is key to understanding how to finance the solution. Rather than focusing on how to cut costs in various programs we should discover what it really takes to solve the problem, and then pursue funding for it.

According the Fraser, the government pays for failure but it does not pay for success. Once we define the problem we’re trying to solve we can more effectively change the system that created and supports the problem. Early intervention will prevent these issues from occurring and funding those preventative measures is vital. But in order to understand how we can prevent social issues we need evidence.

The role of the Office of Social Innovation is to measurably improve the lives of people most in need by driving resources toward better solutions. David Wilkinson talked about the Pay for Success model as an example of how to achieve these results, and pay for positive outcomes. As he states, “The government should be a customer of outcomes.”

2. Data-Informed Decisions

“An investment is only as good as the information it’s based on,” David shared during his session. There is a huge amount of untapped data and Fraser and David shared a couple of ways to access it:

  • There is existing data through Institutional Review Boards (IRB), a committee established to review and approve research involving human subjects. University IRBs have data-sharing agreements with groups you may be working to better understand. Fraser recommends contacting a local university to enter these agreements.
  • David encouraged attendees to visit Data Science for Social Good at the University of Chicago. Any organization can apply to be granted four social scientists that can offer predicative analysis.

Armed with data, nonprofit and social entrepreneurs have evidence to understand which approaches may work to solve an issue.

Role of the Sectors

Proven solutions mitigate the financial and political risk in innovative approaches, and enable positive outcomes. When we reach across sectors we will have a holistic view of the problem, rather than a siloed approach from our own particular perspective.

It is the responsibility of the government to ensure tax dollars are well spent. That said, it’s our responsibility to understand the root of the problem we’re trying to solve, and think in new and informed ways about how to fix them.

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