How to use Information Technology to improve outcomes monitoring and reporting

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How to use Information Technology to improve outcomes monitoring and reporting

IT information systems1 can help greatly with outcomes measurement and reporting. They can make information collection, management and communication more efficient and effective.

But sometimes community service organisations (CSOs) don’t invest what they need to in the technology that’s available to help front line service delivery.2

Having fit-for-purpose and stable IT systems, as well as staff and volunteers with the necessary skills to maintain and use them can be expensive, and deciding what you need takes work.

In order to achieve these things you need to review your current situation and resources. The best solution for developing your IT information systems to support your outcomes measurement plan might be something very simple, or it might be a system which can potentially be used for other business purposes, like handling case management information.

You also need to be able to implement any new system and use it effectively.

Work out what you want your new system to do. Can you keep it simple?

Some very small CSOs use paper based systems and this could be more simple, efficient and cost-effective for them than moving to an IT system. But it is important to think whether this is viable in the longer term. A computer based system doesn’t have to be complex.

To decide if you can use your existing systems and adapt them, or if you need to invest in a new IT system, you need to start by working out what you want the system to do. Write a list or description of the information you want your system to collect and store. Start by creating a table like the one below:

 

List the core areas of activity in your organisation

 

What information do you want to collect for each of these areas (eg to inform strategic planning, staffing decisions, financial monitoring)

 

What information must you collect to meet your funding agreement obligations (eg outcomes in your service agreements)

 

Eg: intake and assessment

 

 

Eg: number of clients assisted, type of assistance, referral source

 

Eg: number of clients assisted, type of assistance, referral source AND increase on numbers in year 1 of contract (baseline)

 

Write a system specification

From the table above you should be able to see the links between the various pieces of information. Decide what information is important to collect. Your decisions might be different to your funders. (Try using this mapping exercise to show your funder what information is important when negotiating performance indicators.)

Write a list of the various pieces of information and how you will use it.3 

This list is called a system specification.

A system specification can be completed for you by an IT specialist but you are the people who know your work and what you need to collect. It is important that you don’t just hand this task over to someone else; you need to work with the IT specialist in this process. 

Hint: When thinking about what you need, remember to try and ‘future proof’ – plan for what your future needs will be.

Start exploring your options

If you want to keep it simple and just use IT to store and collate client data there are some simple paths you can take. For example, you can look at using spreadsheets or databases.

Spreadsheets are useful for filtering and sorting information and for producing tables of summarised data (‘pivot tables’). Databases are useful for looking into the data for more information, and for producing reports. Click here to read about the pros and cons of spreadsheets versus databases.

Hint: Before you buy something new, do you have a current system that can be improved or adapted? The spreadsheet or database you are using might have features you’re not aware of which will meet your needs.


"You need to think about what you want to achieve. Can you do it in Excel or Access? If not, go to an IT consultant and get their advice on whether to buy something off the shelf, or something that’s bespoke for you."

IT Manager, Tasmanian NGO


Do you need something more complicated?

Do you want your IT system to manage client and case information (an information management system)? This is when you use IT as part of a work process (for example, to write up notes or complete assessments).

You have two options.

You could buy an off-the-shelf system.  There might be a system which meets your needs, or you might be able to use an application or service over the internet. Some of these have to be used as they come, but some can be customised (although you might have to pay for this to be done.) Click here for How to find an off-the-shelf information management system.

Your other choice is paying an IT specialist to develop something for you. This means paying a consultant to plan, design and develop a system for your service. (But don’t just hand it over – be engaged in the process! Make sure you define what data gets collected and that it aligns with your organisation’s objectives and core areas of activity.)

Off-the-shelf systems can be run using your own IT infrastructure, or they can be hosted on the Cloud.

The Cloud is a communications network. Sometimes the whole internet is called ‘the cloud’. Cloud computing is when you get hardware or software services from a provider on the internet. Cloud providers manage the IT infrastructure and platforms and users either pay a subscription fee to use the software, or pay each time they use it. Some Cloud software is free and some appears to be free but actually has hidden costs.


For most small organisations I’d recommend a cloud based system. Then it’s the vendor’s responsibility to keep the system up to date with changing reporting requirements.

IT Manager, Tasmanian NGO


Hint: If you are getting advice from an IT consultant on whether to get an off-the-shelf system or a custom built one make sure they are capable of giving you both options and are therefore able to give you independent advice about both approaches, not just promoting the one their business is based on.

Now you know what your options are – some final things to think about

Think about how often you may have to ask for modifications. Government departments change their reporting requirements regularly, so if you will be using your system for reporting you need to make sure you can meet these changing requirements.

Think about expenses – what are the costs of development, set up, support and modifications with the new system you are considering?

How up to date is your infrastructure, and your policies and procedures? Think about doing an IT health check. The hyperlink takes you to infoxchange’s How-To.

It’s a good idea to develop an IT plan (that is, a plan for maintaining and developing your IT systems). Click here for advice on How to write your IT plan.

Hint: It pays to ask around and talk to other people, particularly people from ‘like’ organisations, about the solutions they have found to their IT challenges.

Hint: Check out ImproveIT, an on-line resource to help community and health organisations, especially smaller ones, make the most of their IT investments.4 It includes UnderstandIT (IT explainers, guides and templates tailored for the not-for-profit sector), DiscussIT (a bulletin board where you can discuss technology), Events (conferences, workshops and lectures to help you with IT issues) and a blog (news and information).

Hint: You could talk to ‘like’ organisations about the possibility of a common system – this would mean you could share the costs of design.

See also Pros and cons of customised versus off the shelf software, and the Buying Off the Shelf Software Checklist

Implement the new system

Once you have chosen your IT solution you have to implement it. To do that you will need to step through this process:

 

Test your new system

 

You need to test how the system works, especially for the people who will have to use it. Test how it works for you on a day-to-day basis. Get feedback from everyone involved.

Transfer the existing data onto it (or start from scratch)

Before you transfer your existing data

  • check to make sure it is accurate, relevant and up-to-date;
  • make a full back-up; and
  • check that the way it is stored matches the way it will be stored in the new system.

Train and support your staff

 

Ensure you have allowed adequate time to train staff.

Think about what support will be available to staff to use this system – a manual? a telephone or on-line help system? an on-site IT support person? 

Review it

Check your system regularly.

Sign off on the system

If you have reviewed the system and made any adjustments necessary you can sign off on the implementation!

More resources

For an overview of how to select databases for monitoring, see the Charities Evaluation Service’s IT for Outcomes: Selecting a database for monitoring by Shafiq Meghani. This covers the following systems: AdvicePro, Apricot, Caseworker Connect, Charitylog, ContactLINK, In-form, Lamplight, Online Data Manager, Performance Management System, Social Impact Tracker, Spa, Star Online, VC Connect and Views.

  • 1. This How-To is adapted from Davey S, Parkinson D & Wadia A 2008, Using ICT to improve your monitoring & evaluation: a workbook to help you develop an effective ICT system, Charities Evaluation Service. This is a useful, user-friendly non-technical guide to help you implement an IT information system for this purpose but it pre-dates the development of Cloud-based systems.
  • 2. Australian CSOs recently reported that a lack of investment in IT is creating significant challenges for their organisations, including their attempts to measure client and community outcomes and report organisational success. Nous group 2015, ICT in the not-for-profit sector, a report by nous group for Infoxchange, Connecting Up and TechSoup NZ
  • 3. You can get this information from your Outcomes Measurement Plan. How to develop an outcomes measurement plan is a step-by-step guide on developing one.
  • 4. ImproveIT is an initiative of ACOSS, Infoxchange, the Australian and Victorian Governments, Microsoft, Connecting Up and techsoup.