What’s the Story Behind Your Data? Some Questions to Guide Your Work

Published by Clear Impact, written by Anne McIntyre-Lahner:


I once had the opportunity to listen-in as another agency told the story behind the baseline for a poorly performing program. Due to under-staffing, the program was unable to achieve one of the primary outcomes; an outcome that would result in participants being better off AND lead to reimbursement for some program costs. The story and the factors identified helped the funders understand that in order to improve performance, the program in question truly needed increased staff resources to deliver services in a way that would ensure participants were better off after participation, and lead to the program being able to generate increased revenue in the future.

When reporting performance, Results-Based Accountability (RBA) practitioners need to include the story behind the baseline as an integral part of any report. In RBA, a “baseline” is a display of data with two parts: a historical part which shows where we’ve been, and a forecast part that shows where we are headed if we stay on our current course. The data are important; they let us understand the quantity (how much did we do?), quality (how well did we do it?), and outcome (is anyone better off?) of any effort. The story behind the baseline, however, provides the context for the reader to fully understand the performance, and it empowers the practitioners to understand the necessary actions to turn the curve on performance.

I call the story behind the baseline an opportunity to talk about “the good, the bad and the ugly”. It is an opportunity to increase the practitioners’ and the readers’ understanding of performance by identifying the forces at work that impact the program or effort that is being reported. The forces can be positive or negative. Consider the following examples of forces that may be part of the stories behind the performance of a human services agency:

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