Urban Institute
Research Assistant

Future of PFS: Promoting data through effective storytelling

June 29, 2017 - 11:50am

“Rigorous evaluation,” “building the evidence base,” “investing in what works” – these phrases are all too familiar to us steeped in the pay for success (PFS) space and evidence-based policymaking movement. But what do these phrases actually mean to the average person? The terms and phrases we use on a daily basis could fill a dictionary, but many remain intangible concepts to many elected officials, government employees, and service providers.

If the overarching goal of PFS is to shift government policy towards evidence-based practices, and promote outcomes-focused procurement and service delivery, it is important for us all to deeply consider how communicate these broad ideas. One clear step: we need to become effective storytellers.

This was the crux of Soledad O’Brien’s message to the 200 attendees of the Pay for Success Initiative’s (PFSI) first-ever National Symposium on the Future of Pay for Success. With more than 25 years of experience in broadcast journalism, and as the executive producer of the What Works Media Project, O’Brien has taken on a mission to bring the power of storytelling to bear on the power of data in driving better outcomes in communities nationwide.

O’Brien emphasized that every policy story is a human story, and that telling human stories can better illustrate what’s really at stake when we talk about using data to improve outcomes. To be effective, stories should be interesting, informative, and capture both the struggle and the dignity of the person whose story is being told. This necessitates the targeted use of sources, media, and of course, interesting language. In O’Brien’s own words, when talking about government innovation, “Don’t say ‘government innovation’!”.

O’Brien’s message serves as a reminder that people are at the core of pay for success. Showcasing the story of a young mother whose daughter had a stronger start in life as a result of Nurse-Family Partnership, or of a once homeless man who, with permanent supportive housing services, achieved the stability to break the shelter to hospital to prison cycle—these real stories can make tangible the potential of PFS to improve the lives of individuals and families across the United States. 

As the pay for success projects continue to launch, PFS stakeholders should consider not only how to do PFS, but also how to talk about what it means to do PFS. In the spirit of interesting and diverse storytelling, we’ve compiled a Twitter record of the entire Symposium, representing key takeaways from our plenaries and breakouts. While a 140-character tweet may not be enough to capture the essence of our Symposium, 350 of them might. Read the full Twitter transcript here.

This is the first blog in our Future of PFS blog series.

On June 22nd and 23rd, 2017, the Pay for Success Initiative hosted a National Symposium on the Future of Pay for Success in Washington, D.C. The invite-only Symposium brought together leaders from government, nonprofits,  and organizations active in pay for success to consider the big questions facing the field, as well as highlight lessons for engaging in PFS efforts. More information on the Symposium can be found here.

Over the next several months, the Initiative will be releasing a series of blogs highlighting important conversations, themes, and questions that arose during the Symposium. To join the conversation, visit pfs.urban.org, follow @UrbanPFSI and #FutureofPFS on Twitter, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Have a Pay for Success question? Ask our experts 

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research. Photo via Shutterstock.