Pick your paintbrush: why what you measure matters

Governments, businesses, social enterprises all look for the right metrics or data to be able to help them make decisions and shape their policies. But, what if the data collected doesn’t paint a complete picture? things vs capabilitiesAmartya Sen found this to be the case in his research. For years in India there was a theory taught about the relationship between food output and population size. It was thought that as the Indian population level would overtake the available food supply and that a lack of food caused famines to occur. However, Sen pointed out flaws in this theory – actually, people starve when there is food available and people don’t starve when there isn’t food available. The distribution of starvation in India didn’t correspond with the food supply available even though the amount of food available had been a key indicator used to explain why famines occurred. There were other societal factors contributing to the problem, such as lack of local jobs, low wages or an increase in food prices preventing people from being nourished. Considerations of people’s internal abilities in combination with these external factors are what make-up the capabilities approach. Previously in the developed world, stock markets, approval ratings and public policy change has been based on “leading economic indicators” such as GDP, However, more and more people recognise that these metrics have little direct relevance to the average person and that they don’t capture the nuances that may be important for decision-making. In 2003, Sen and American philosopher Martha Nussbaum founded the Human Development and Capabilities Association (HDCA) to bring together academics and practitioners who are applying the capabilities approach to a spectrum of arenas, such as health, education, children, ethics, human rights, development, technology, inequities, and so on. Participle is working to operationalise the capabilities approach to measure its social impact. Rooted in Sen and Nussbaum’s theories as well as years of practical experience working with people and families in the UK, Participle is focused on measuring four core capabilities that are vital to living well in the 21st century: Capabilities2 Returning to our Pop Quiz Just because people attend school more frequently, apply for three jobs in a week, lose weight or need to go to the hospital less, doesn’t mean that they have flourishing lives. At Participle, we see the need for a fundamental shift to measure the things that are important to an individual and their ability to lead a meaningful life. For us, the capabilities approach paints a more nuanced picture and thus has the potential to help governments, businesses and social enterprises make important decisions. We see it as the method for defining the next generation of indicators that evidence success, just as much as the GDP, unemployment rate or inflation.

Amanda Briden is Measure Manager at Participle, and leads the development and implementation of social impact measures across all our work.  Find her online at @amandabriden.

Read more about how we measure the impact of our work.

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Pop Quiz: what does success look like in a relational welfare state?

1) In working with troubled families, success is:
a. A reduction in anti-social behaviour.
b. Improved school attendance.
c. A functioning and supportive relationship between parent and child.

Success Kid2) In working with the unemployed, success is:
a. A low unemployment rate.
b. The number of jobs applied for in a week.
c. A person who is meeting new people and taking up work or learning opportunities in something that they’re interested in.

3) In working with those battling long-term health conditions, success is:
a. A reduction in blood pressure.
b. Losing weight.
c. A person who continues to take actions to live well and can bounce back from set-backs.

4) In working with the ageing population, success is:
a. A reduction in the number of hospital admissions.
b. Increase in mobility.
c. A person who is active in their community and has a network of friends who are there for them.

Obviously, all these things are important. But if you answered C to all of the above, then you believe in the capabilities approach to define a successful relational welfare state. So do we! And if you didn’t, let us tell you why we think this approach is so important.

What are capabilities?

Capabilities are what people are able to be and do given their daily lives and environment. What does that mean exactly? Let’s break it down. A capability has two parts: internal influences and external influences.

capabilites internal external

Internal influences on capabilities are the things that people are able to be and do because they value them and have the freedom to pursue them. That could mean anything from meeting new people, working at a job, being part of a community or having positive self-esteem.

It’s important to recognise that a person’s capabilities are very much subject to external influences too- it’s not just a lack of motivation that stops people from achieving all they could. There are many things that a person can’t necessarily control. These range from things we can’t change like age, gender, and genetic background, to things we can change, such as laws, infrastructure and culture. Of course even those external influences we can change take a great deal of time and effort, and are usually the result of collective action.

You’ll notice that of our pop quiz answers, option C (for capabilities) have some interesting things in common. They’re all likely to lead to sustainable success in the long term, because they focus on abilities rather than achievements at a single point in time. They’re also the options that are least likely to be targeted and measured by public services as they are currently set up. But the landscape is slowly changing, which we applaud.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more on where this capabilities idea came from, and how the way we treat data influences our decision-making in public policy.

Amanda Briden is Measure Manager at Participle, and leads the development and implementation of social impact measures across all our work.  Find her online at @amandabriden.

Read more about how we measure the impact of our work.

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Capabilities: what they are and why they matter

The wealth of a nation is its people. Or put another way, in the words of the philosopher and capability guru Martha Nussbaum: “It is people who matter”.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it, but so little public policy is actually about people: what they are able to be and do (as opposed to have) and what real opportunities are available to them.

via Flickr user THEfunkyman

via Flickr user THEfunkyman

Focusing on how we can fully flourish – as opposed to the tireless pursuit of money alone – is what capabilities are about. While the basic ideas behind this approach go back to Aristotle, the modern foundations are based in the work of the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

Sen spent his own early career studying famines in India and Africa: trying to understand what causes famine and how people can be protected. He saw how great wealth could co-exist with starvation and concluded that poverty is complex and cannot be reduced to one thing, the lack of money. Our work at Participle has a different context, but the underlying questions- about poverty, social justice and how to address entrenched inequality- are the same. These questions are core to our work, designing working exemplars of a welfare state that might better support the development of our nation. We call it Relational Welfare.

Because we are practical and we want to measure our impact, we have decided to focus on four core capabilities at Participle: working and learning; community; health and vitality and relationships. Over time and through our work we have learnt that the most important of these is relationships: where there is room to grow deep and trusting relationships other things follow, whether it is a solution to loneliness amongst the elderly or a way out of the complex social, psychological and economic problems that some of the families we work with experience.

The capabilities approach turns thinking about our welfare state on its head. It becomes clear that focusing on needs alone is like continually trying to fill a bottomless bucket: needs based services will never foster sustainable capabilities. And it also becomes clear that national metrics that put GDP as the metric (as opposed to one of a range of metrics) will crowd out the time to think, learn, contribute, love, have friends: the building blocks of a flourishing life.

Measurement is like a search light: we can see only where the beam falls and this is why, if we want to change our public services –the way they work, the culture and what is provided – we need to think differently about what we measure. If we want public services and political systems that lead to flourishing lives, it is capabilities that matter.

Hilary Cottam is Founder and Principal Partner at Participle. You can find her on Twitter at @HilaryCottam

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How to survive in a relational economy: home and away

Have you ever been enjoying yourself at a party, only for the topic of conversation to turn to something you’ve got professional experience of? It’s impossible not to get sucked in. I work helping people to build their social network to find job opportunities and improve their careers, so whenever people are chatting about their job searches my ears prick up. I’ve heard lots of tips and tricks, career advice from the sensible to the insane. So when I bumped into a cousin at a family party who’d recently found a job, I was eager to hear what had worked for her.

via Flickr user futureshape

via Flickr user futureshape

She is 22 and graduated university last year with a photography degree and dreams of traveling the world to capture different cultures on film. Like many students, the reality was that she finished university and struggled to find full time employment. She decided to make the move from her small town university to the larger city of Manchester as she felt this would help her find the job of her dreams. It dawned on me that this was the same advice given to me when I was her age, and I think echoed in my generation who grew up in small rural communities: “Fly the nest, head to the bright lights of a city and the promise of opportunity.”

But this seemingly sensible advice had worked badly for her. In leaving her hometown, it turned out she was losing perhaps her most valuable asset for uncovering opportunities: her networks.  In Manchester she quickly became isolated, was able to secure bar work but the wage was low, rent was high and she was barely able to get by, never mind explore her passion for photography or have a healthy social life.  After eight months she was demoralised and forced to return home.

Humbling end to the experiment, right? Actually, it turned out to be an extremely smart move. In reconnecting with friends, family and her local community her networks and relationships have enabled her to make rapid improvements. She has negotiated a discount on a new flat with a family friend in exchange for some free babysitting, and after a few conversations with friends and neighbours has secured a full time job in a local business. The close ties of her local community may not have delivered a glamorous job in travel and photography, but she is more settled and happy and has more time and energy which she devotes to finding other ways of keep her photography passion alive, and portfolio up to date through local events and community groups.

The moral of the story isn’t “cities bad, countryside good.” In fact, I hope she can one day return to Manchester and beyond to pursue the international career she wants. If it’s still her top priority, once she gets there the practice of utilising relationships in her local community and the confidence it has given her will be a huge help in meeting her goal. No matter where you are, knowing how to build a network and having personal connections makes life easier, which is why it’s at the centre of everything we do.

Jessica Hughes is Head of Marketing at Backr

Read more in the “How to survive in a relational economy” series.

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