This position paper by Dr Ailsa Cook for What Works Scotland explores the concept of outcomes and their history; a concept at the centre of efforts to improve public services in Scotland and elsewhere. 

A focus on outcomes has been an integral part of what has come to be known as the Scottish Approach to public service reform.


This paper has been developed by What Works Scotland as a focus for debate and discussion on the place of outcomes based approaches within public service reform in Scotland. The paper draws together findings from formal research and the grey literature that has examined the use of outcomes based approaches in public service across the UK and internationally.

The paper examines this literature in light of key developments in Scottish policy and practice to address the following questions:

  • What is an outcome and where has the concept come from?
  • How are outcomes used within the Scottish Approach to public services?
  • What is the learning from implementation in Scotland and internationally?
  • What are the implications of this learning for implementation of outcomes based approaches within the Scottish Approach?

About outcomes

Outcomes is a concept at the centre of efforts to improve public services in Scotland, across the UK and beyond. Use of the term ‘outcome’ permeates all parts of the public service system from frontline practice to planning, commissioning, service improvement and performance management. It is a term used across sectors and service types, from housing to education, community safety to health and social care. The concept of outcomes is inexorably interwoven with the ongoing drive to reform public services through a focus on efficiency, accountability, partnership, personalisation and co-production.

Within a Scottish policy context, outcomes based approaches are promoted to improve public services in a range of ways including by focusing on the concerns of individuals and communities and demonstrating accountability. At the centre of this work is the National Performance Framework that identifies 16 national outcomes that public services work to achieve and against which performance is publicly reported This overarching framework is supported by a raft of more detailed outcomes frameworks operating at local and national levels.

This focus on outcomes has been an integral part of what has come to be known as the Scottish Approach to public service reform, encapsulating a move within public services from top-down, service-led, reactive delivery, towards more personalised, preventative and collaborative ways of working. These principles, enshrined in the Christie Commission Report and the Government response, create a climate for policy implementation that explicitly recognises complexity and the need to embrace change and innovation.

This shift in public services has significant consequences for the ways in which outcomes based approaches can be implemented. A move away from traditional services and linear interventions creates challenges when working with outcomes, as well as opportunities for using outcomes based approaches to navigate complexity and deliver robust and meaningful improvement.

Download the publication

Outcome Based Approaches in Public Service Reform (PDF)

See a presentation from Dr Ailsa Cook and other related presentations from a What Works Scotland seminar on using outcomes-based approaches in public service reform.

More details

Author: Dr Ailsa Cook, Director of Outcome Focus, a consultancy supporting organisations to use evidence-based and action-orientated approaches to innovate and improve outcomes.

Date of publication: April 2017

Type of publication: Position paper

Related resources

Revisiting the Scottish National Performance Framework

Blog post by What Works Scotland co-director Ken Gibb on his blog ‘ Brick by Brick’ about the Scottish Government consultation on the National Performance Framework, its outcomes and indicators and is undertaking a large-scale stakeholder discussion exercise to support this process.

19 February 2017

The emerging Scottish model: avoiding everything becoming nothing

A What Works Scotland think piece by James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh, which considers how definitions of a ‘Scottish model’ are shaping thinking about policy delivery.

February 2015