How to scale up social impact — the challenge of the 21st century - Canadian Government Executive
From apoliticalInnovationsPolicy
April 9, 2018

How to scale up social impact — the challenge of the 21st century

This piece is part of Apolitical’s spotlight series on scaling social impact.

“Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.”

Boiled down, Bill Clinton’s famous dictum has three parts: innovate, learn and scale.

He was half right about the innovation, and only half, because that problem solving hasn’t stopped. Every year, people fashion more and better solutions to the world’s problems. Apolitical exists to bring these innovations to the fore.

We have learnt a lot more about what works, too. Evidence-based policymaking has taken off, and the charity and non-profit sectors have begun to bring the same rigour to their work.

Scaling up is the missing piece.

Without it, innovations are worthless. With it, they could propel governments to hit the Sustainable Development Goals and to eradicate illness, fight poverty and educate billions around the world.

How to scale is, therefore, the trillion dollar question. And, in a series of articles inspired by conversations with experts from across sectors and around the world, we will show you the progress that’s been made on it so far.

What is scaling up?

First off: what does scaling up mean?

The term is borrowed from the industrial era. And, the way we scale up social change leans heavily on private sector experiences, whether it’s the mass production of industry, the clinical trials of big pharma or lean start up methodologies.

These are all useful analogies — but they are incomplete.

They were designed for situations in which the objective is to scale an organisation, not a solution. In those private sector situations, scaling is often an imperative, bigger is almost always better and the purpose of scaling is commercial success.

Scaling social change is different: more flexible in some ways, less so in others.

It requires taking effective approaches and enhancing their impact and broadening their coverage. These could be policies, programs, practices — or even just an idea. Who’s doing it is less important: what matters is that it’s done well.

Harder than it looks

Hearing Clinton’s quote, it almost sounds as if the hard part is done. There are solutions that work — now all that’s left is to replicate and supersize them. Just feed more money in and watch the impact grow.

But scaling is rarely that simple — and a mistake at scale is costly.

For one, it’s not always clear whether or how something is working. Impact evaluation is growing, but billions of dollars of policy expenditure remain inadequately unevaluated. And, even when impact is proven, it’s not always clear what exactly is responsible. Scaling up often requires paring down a program to its essentials — and for this you need to know what can and cannot be compromised.

Even then, programs often work in one place but not another. All kinds of contextual factors play a role, from the supporting infrastructure that delivers a program to the cultural differences that influence how people respond to it.

And sometimes the magic is lost in the march. Scaling up is resource intensive and often means a significant drop in the time and energy for learning, experimenting and reflecting on the problem. As a result, scale almost always results in a drop in quality, so it’s important to decide what the threshold of quality will be.

Paths to scale

Apolitical’s series of articles is about untangling those knots and finding the right paths to scale.

The world is rich with examples to learn from. Some are simpler, smaller, more polished; others ambitious, sprawling and rough around the edges. There are none that could be stamped a success without any caveats. But every case has its lessons.

We’ve spoken to the people who inspired many of these programs, the people who ran them — and the people who scrutinised them.

One cardinal rule emerged: everything has its own path to scale. What worked in one instance is unlikely to work in another. A program’s path to scale is determined by not only its own properties, but the context it finds itself in.

That path might be a dead-end: not everything is capable of scale. Scalable solutions tend to be ones that are simple, clearly better than the alternatives and not reliant on very specific contexts or people pushing them forward.

Early on in trying to scale something up, two questions need to be addressed. First, what is the core of the solution — what is essential to its success, and cannot be compromised? And, second, how much control is required to ensure impact?

The core is not always obvious. People’s sense of what is core is often based on intuition, not evidence. It might surprise you to find out just how much is unnecessary.

Everything outside the core is up for debate. Trimming that fat is vital: the simpler and cheaper something is, the more likely it is to scale effectively.

But perhaps the most important determinant of the path to scale is the level of control because there tends to be a trade-off between fidelity to an ideal and the reach and pace of scaling.

On one side of the spectrum, there’s slowly growing your organisation to deliver the solution exactly as you wish; on the other, there’s advocacy and spreading the word like wildfire, letting other people and organisations take it up as they see fit.

In between, there are many shades of grey. These might involve strategic partnerships to get a step-change in capacity, or they might involve franchising, giving local actors a certain freedom to adapt the program to their context.

In this series, we touch on examples from across the spectrum. In particular, we focus on three case studies.

We take a closer look at Reach Up and Learn, a home-visiting early childhood development program that was created almost 30 years ago in Jamaica and has since spread to four continents. It shows how a program can be streamlined for scale and adaptation while maintaining its essential qualities — in fact, its impact demonstrates just how important early childhood interventions can be.

Next, we look at BRAC, the world’s largest NGO and an organisation that early on decided to put scale at the heart of everything it does. Their flagship Graduation Programme is the only proven way out of extreme poverty — but it’s expensive. We look at how governments across the world are trying to take it to scale without breaking the bank or losing what makes it work.

And, finally, we turn to the UK. In 2010, the idea of a studio school was introduced. It would provide an alternative secondary education: a place to learn by doing, rather than memorising. After a promising pilot, they scaled the idea across the UK — with mixed results.

The big questions

While it’s true that every program has its own path to scale, certain questions appear every time, whether in Jamaica, Colombia or the UK.

The first is the question of generalisability: it worked over there, but how can we predict whether it will work over here?

The second is a question of planning: how can I design a program for scale from the outset?

And the third is the perennial question: how can I harness emerging technologies and techniques, from behavioural insights to big data, to scale more effectively?

These are the questions that everyone, no matter the place or the program, faces at the foot of the mountain. We put them to every academic and practitioner we spoke with, and their reflections are the substance of the rest of the series.

The series is not meant to be exhaustive. It considers scaling up in the broadest terms and identifies some of the ever-present elements. It details the challenges that practitioners encounter — and shows how some have overcome them. It’s a snapshot of our progress on the challenge of the 21st century.

This piece originally appeared on Apolitical, the global network for public servants. You can find the original here

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