OBA: The potential of performance accountability

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Strangford Lough; image by Stephen and used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

Welcome to the third blog article in our series on Outcomes Based Accountability (OBA) and the Programme for Government (PfG). In our first blog article, we laid out the basic concepts and structure of OBA, before assessing ‘population accountability’ in more detail in our second post. In this post, we consider ‘performance accountability’ and key opportunities that it offers for performance management and scrutiny.

Performance accountability

Performance accountability is the lower of the two levels of OBA. While the PfG is based at the higher ‘population accountability’ level, the work of individual departments, agencies and stakeholders towards the PfG outcomes should be assessed using performance accountability.

The performance accountability process begins with establishing the client group, and how positive impacts for this group can be measured and delivered. An intervention is assessed under performance accountability by answering these three questions:

  1. How much did we do? (Quantity of work)
  2. How well did we do it? (Quality of work)
  3. Is anyone better off? (Impact of work)

A more detailed definition of performance accountability can be found in the first post in this series.

In the 2016 draft Programme for Government, the Executive acknowledged the difficult and long-term nature of progressing population outcomes, and so committed to implementing performance level OBA for individual programmes and policies. Since that point, the Executive and Civil Service have been working to embed performance accountability in this way.

Potential weaknesses of performance accountability

In our second blog post, we looked in detail at several potential issues with the population accountability level of OBA. Several of these issues also apply in some way to performance accountability.

For example, the use of quantitative data to define and measure impact can encourage the production of the right data, over delivery of the right services, by simplifying the complexity of real-life interventions to a simple action-to-data-point process. It can also be difficult, even at the level of an individual intervention using performance accountability, to attribute responsibility for success with any certainty. If an employability project secures employment for 30 participants – how can we know how many of those people would have gained employment anyway?

Using performance accountability for management and scrutiny

The above issues for performance accountability are live, and significant.

However, because performance accountability is much closer to its client group than population accountability is to the country as a whole, these issues are not overwhelming. If we remain aware of the weaknesses and limitations of performance accountability, we can still usefully employ it in Executive performance management and Assembly scrutiny.

     Figure 1: Delivery of Universal Credit

How much did we do?

Number of claimants (total)

Number of new claimants

Number of staff (full time equivalent)


How well did we do it?

% complaint rate

% appeal rate

% appeal success rate

% customer satisfaction rate


Is anyone better off?

Number/% of claimants gaining employment

Number/% of claimants gaining qualifications

Number/% of claimants in absolute or relative poverty

Number/% of claimants leaving Universal Credit system via increased income


       Figure 2: Executive International Relations work

How much did we do?

Number of staff in Bureaux and TEO International Relations Team (full time equivalent)

Number of Invest NI international staff

Number of events hosted

Number of inward & outward visits organised

How well did we do it?

% satisfaction rate with events

% satisfaction rate of visit participants

% staff posts filled

Is anyone better off?

Number/% of target audiences reporting improved perception of Northern Ireland

Number/% of new international relationships established

Number/% of inward investments secured


      Figure 3: Department for Communities funded independent advice helpline

How much did we do?

Number of calls received

Number of staff (full time equivalent)

Number of calls elevated to cases


How well did we do it?

% of calls answered

% complaint rate

% users reporting satisfaction with service


Is anyone better off?

Number/% of users gaining additional income

Number/% of users with improved wellbeing

Number/% of users reporting their problem is resolved


Above are three performance accountability ‘report cards’ which give purely illustrative examples of what could be captured in the performance management and scrutiny of Executive activities. Report cards could be used in the monitoring of core, legally required Executive functions (delivery of Universal Credit, Figure 1), proactive Executive work (international relations activities, Figure 2) and services delivered by Executive-funded stakeholders (independent advice helpline, Figure 3).

The content of these report cards would ultimately be down to Executive departments and agencies to develop – with advice and scrutiny from relevant Assembly Committees, and from other stakeholders. Whatever the specific content, they demonstrate the potential of the performance accountability approach for performance management and scrutiny.

In the Executive context, monthly or quarterly reports of this nature could demonstrate activity and achievements over time, as well as comparison with other services where appropriate. In the Assembly context, reports like this could be provided to the relevant Committee to enable close scrutiny of particular initiatives, and corrective action where necessary. Indeed in Scotland, where OBA has informed the National Performance Framework since 2007, Scottish Parliament committees have been repeatedly encouraged – by both their Finance Committee, and research service – to pilot outcomes-based scrutiny in individual policy areas or programmes.

As a starting point, an Assembly Statutory Committee could select an individual policy area and work with its Department to assess it using performance accountability. This would involve reviewing report cards like in Figures 1-3 at committee meetings, and using these when scrutinising Departmental officials or providing policy advice and input. This could permit Committees and Members to build further capacity and knowledge on how performance accountability operates, and how it can be usefully deployed in the context of individual Departments, agencies and initiatives.