Separating outputs & outcomes

It’s not hard for the Environmental Decision Group to point to a stack of achievements such as the publication of high-impact science papers, the presentation of talks and the coordination of workshops. These are all important and worthy activities in themselves and they allow us to tick many of the boxes our funders require. However, in and of themselves, they are only a part of our value; some might say the lesser part. They are the outputs of our endeavours, and their real value lies in the outcomes that they bring about.

A paper on a new method that allocates scarce resources more efficiently between projects to save threatened species, for example, is an output. The implementation of that method by a government department, thereby saving more species, is an outcome. We discuss this very example in articles of this issue.

There are many definitions and descriptions of what outputs and outcomes are, and why they are different. I usually think of an output as the thing we produce, and the outcome is the difference this output makes. Of course, everyone has their own idea on this and the difference between outputs and outcomes is often blurry and contingent on your frame of reference.

For example, a workshop discussing conservation triage might be considered an output. A science paper that comes out of that workshop might also be thought of as an output. If the paper leads to a change in policy, these outputs might be considered as having contributed to an outcome. For the public servants involved, the policy is an output and the change created by that policy is the outcome.

However, if that workshop brought together public servants and scientists, and resulted in the creation of trusting relationships that endured over many years contributing to wise and informed policy development – well, that would also be a great outcome. Unfortunately, outcomes such as these are impossible to capture in the accounting sheet. Separating and valuing outputs and outcomes is never a straightforward process.

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