SIGNAL works brilliantly because its primary function is to enable us to see the world through other people’s eyes. As such, it is designed to be of equal value to all stakeholders whether they be individuals, households, support workers, programme managers, funders, commissioners or policymakers.  So why isn’t this obvious to everyone? Robert Webb, Co-Founder of SIGNAL, considers this question as he reflects on his participation in this year’s Marmalade Week in Oxford

Having just sat down after presenting SIGNAL as an example of what Meaningful Measurement could look like to the audience at Marmalade Week, I was taken aback by someone asking me “I’m confused – who is SIGNAL really for?

Hadn’t I just told them? Hadn’t I just made very clear that the data that SIGNAL collects is so powerful because it is made up of 1,000s of individual stories that combine to articulate community need with the full weight and authenticity of the collective voice of the people behind it?  My questioner said he was struggling to understand how we could claim that the data that SIGNAL collects could, at one and the same time, be of equal value to both the individual and to service providers, commissioners and policymakers.    How can data be meaningful, I replied,  if it doesn’t truly represent the views of the people who provided it? How can it be meaningful if the people who provided it don’t feel that they own it; and furthermore, feel confident that they are in control of it? He looked at me sceptically and only the call to lunch prevented me from landing a killer argument that would have changed his life forever.

Having had time to reflect I realise that the question was a really good one; and it got me thinking -  why is the answer not obvious?  I believe the adage that ‘form follows function’ can shed some useful light on the issue.

In this context, function means ‘purpose’ and form means ‘the methodology to deliver that purpose.’  The phrase is attribute to the 19th century American architect Louis Sullivan who coined it in the era of the early office blocks which started to challenge the equilibrium between purpose and methodology (how could you build a functioning, enormous office block in the days before air-conditioning and superfast elevators could maintain a safe, conducive, and productive, working environment?)

The world of design is littered with examples of the disconnect between form and function: the Sinclair C5 being one much quoted example or, more recently, London’s Boris Buses which looked iconic but were beleaguered with dysfunctional doors and terrible air-conditioning.

So, it is with the concept of measuring impact which is too often flawed. Whilst the function or purpose might be clear (i.e., to provide evidence that a particular service or programme has achieved progress towards solving an identified problem), the form or methodology that delivers the purpose is often flawed because the most crucial element of its design is missing:  its ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. It is the ultimate 'soft skill', known in the real world as empathy that, when embraced, creates dynamic purposeful transformation, and when resisted leads to fear of the unknown, overengineered measurement methods and policy designed to deliver more of the same, which highlights another crucial principle of form follows function: simplicity. Again, the world of design is littered with examples of unnecessary complexity. My elderly mother cannot for the life of her understand why on earth she would want to watch television on her telephone.  The imperative should be to simplify; to eliminate all parts of the measurement process that result in delay, confusion and disconnect because otherwise measurement becomes less and less beneficial to citizens and more and more likely to result in maintaining the status quo.

We have 1000s of examples of individuals who have benefited from using SIGNAL; who understand that it helps them to tell their story, which leads to a deeper understanding of the assets and deficits in their life; of their barriers and aspirations, and that it helps them identify realistic and achievable goals. I believe it is a good example of form following function for this reason (and herein lies the answer my interrogator’s question):  the data is collected as a result of people being engaged and invested in the methodology because they can see its value (it helps them make changes in their lives and to plan for a better future).  Because it is designed to be of benefit to the individual who uses it, the data it produces is authentic.

So, back to the much-maligned questioner.  Why didn’t he get it? Was it too simple? Was the idea of giving ownership and power to the individual too alarming; too unpredictable? Does building something around storytelling, listening and empathy put a spanner in the works? Is the data it produces too subjective?

Meaningful measurement should be one of the great cross-cutting themes. Where function(purpose) is followed by form (the method by which the purpose is delivered), meaningful measurement is generated. It should not be a passive, reactive exercise; rather, it should be dynamic and transformative. For measurement to be meaningful it must be built around the human being. They are, after all, common to everything.

There is no one, simple answer to "what is meaningful measurement?"  If you would like to contribute to the debate we would love to hear from you.  Please contact us at contact@clearsignal.org