Types of boxes within outcomes models should be specified by listing their technical features (‘What’s in a name’) principle

Academic references to outcomes theory



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“Boxes within an outcomes model can be: relevant; influenceable; measurable; controllable; attributable; and/or accountable"




“The best way to specify the type of box you are referring to (e.g. an outcome, an impact), is to specify it in terms of the technical features boxes in outcomes models can have"

The principle

The best way to properly specify and differentiate types of boxes appearing within an outcomes model (theory of change, intervention logic etc.) is to specify the technical features of those boxes. Boxes within an outcomes model can have one or more of the following features: relevance; influenceability; measurability; controllability; attributability; and, accountability. Names for types of boxes that appear within an outcomes model (outputs, results, goals, impacts etc.) that do not clearly communicate the technical features of that type of box can create conceptual confusion. This is because the mere name of the type of box does do not fully specify the technical features of the particular type of boxes.  


The problem

There are often lenghty arguments about the appropriate name to call particular types of boxes within outcomes models. Outcomes models are models of high-level outcome(s) that are being sought by an intervention and the steps it is believed need to occur for them to be achieved. Outcomes models go by names such as: logic models; theories of change; program theories; interention logics; results roadmaps; results chains; strategy maps etc.).

These arguments relate to which boxes in an outcomes model are, or are not appropriately described by terms such as: activities, processes, activities, outputs, short-term outcomes, intermediate outcomes, medium-term outcomees, long-term outcomes, results, goals, impacts etc.


The solution

Definitional problems around various types of boxes that can appear within outcomes models occur in part because different disciplines (managers, strategic planners, policy analysts, economists, accountants, performance managers, evaluators, social scientists etc.) and different sectors use different outcomes terminology. 

A lot of effort currently goes into attempting to find (and enforce) the ‘right’ terms for the different types of boxes that can appear within outcomes models.

However from a technical point of view, regardless of the names given to the types of boxes appearing within outcomes models, it is essential that each type of box is fully specified in terms of the features of that type of box.

The possible features of types of boxes within outcomes models include: relevance; influenceability; measurability; controllability; attributability; and, accountability.

The first table below shows these features and the values they can have. 

The second table shows how names for particular types of boxes within outcomes models can be unambiguously defined by specifying which values they have on which of the features. At the current time, when there are considerable differences of opinion about the best names to call different types of boxes in outcomes models, specifying boxes' features in this way is the fastest and most efficient way of cutting through the confusion in this area.


Example

If a funder asks a provider to ‘give us a list of your outcomes’, the best way for the funder to communicate exactly what they want to the provider is to fully specify the features of the boxes they are calling outcomes. For example, they could fully specify an outcome as: relevant; high sequential position; influenceable; not-necessarily measurable; not-necessarily controllable; not-necessarily attributable; and, not-necessarily a direct accountability. 

If the funder wishes, it can vary this set of requirements. For instance some funders might want to require that the boxes they are calling outcomes also be measurable. This approach ensures that the provider is completely clear about what is required and avoids any confusion which can occur if they are just asked for their outcomes without further explanation.

It is appropriate for providers, whenever they are asked by a funder to provide a list of their outcomes, results or impacts to ask that the provider fully specifies what they mean by using Duignan’s Features of Boxes That Appear in Outcomes Model List and reference this page.

Duignan, P. (2009d). Using Outcomes Theory to Solve Important Conceptual and Practical Problems in Evaluation, Monitoring and Performance Management Systems. American Evaluation Association Conference 2009, Orlando, Florida, 11-14 November 2009.