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A peoples-led outcomes approach: Integrating capabilities and human rights into outcomes

5 Feb 2015 | Francis Stuart

Last week I attended the GCPH/IFF Marilyn Waring lecture on the economics of dignity. I was particularly struck by two terms Waring spoke about: outcomes and capabilities.

Both seem pertinent to a range of policy agendas being pursued in Scotland just now.

The Scottish Government is rightly proud of its ‘outcomes approach’, exemplified by the National Performance Framework – Scotland Performs. The idea is that “an outcomes based approach encourages us all to focus on the difference that we make and not just the inputs or processes over which we have control. Success for the Government and its public bodies is about impact and we should be judged by tangible improvements in the things that matter to the people of Scotland.” 

While broadly welcome from an accountability perspective, two obvious questions arise - whose outcomes are we talking about and how do we determine them? Who decides what matters to the people of Scotland?

That brings me to the focus on capabilities which Waring spoke about in-depth.

Building on the work of Amartya Sen, Waring defined capabilities as ‘what needs to be put in place to allow people to access their human rights’.

In doing so she made the case for embedding capabilities within a human rights approach. Using the example of unpaid care, Waring outlined how it is possible to construct research questions to ask young carers how their care work might compromise or inhibit their capacity to access basic human rights such as the right to rest and leisure, the right to participate in community life and the right to dignity. This can help generate insights as to where people’s human rights are being violated and begin the process of understanding how things need to be changed.

At the heart of Waring’s approach is the active involvement of the person or people whose human rights and capability we are talking about.

This focus on participation in determining their capabilities chimes with Oxfam’s own experience creating the Humankind Index. By asking 3,000 people across Scotland what they ‘need to live well in their community’ the Index aims to highlight the social foundations people need to live a full life.

The views of the people of Scotland were therefore crucial in constructing the Humankind Index: we wanted it to be a reflection of what the people of Scotland say are their priorities, concerns and ambitions. And we particularly wanted to reach out to those seldom-heard groups so often marginalised from mainstream policy-making. As my colleague Katherine Trebeck has written, we didn’t want to replicate top-down, elite-driven initiatives.

Which brings me back to an outcomes approach.

Much more thought needs to be given to how and by whom outcomes are created.

Whether it be the National Performance Framework or the proposed carers’ assessment there is a need to build a capability approach into the Government’s way of working. That will require the active participation of citizens and voices that are seldom heard in policy making circles. That will require time, effort and resources. And it will require government to engage in processes where it does not ‘know’ or ‘control’ the final outcome.

If politicians are serious about a more participative democracy then they need to get serious about capabilities. They could do worse than look at Marilyn Waring’s work on unpaid care and Oxfam’s Humankind Index. After all, initiatives such as these could be the bridge to a ‘peoples-led’ outcomes approach.

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