Maybe duplication isn’t such a bad thing (?)

We hear it all the time, right? From grantmakers and politicians and our own executive directors: Thou Shalt Not Duplicate Services.

It’s one of those things that, on its face, seems like the most reasonable prohibition in the world. We have limited resources and so many problems, so why in the world would we want to duplicate what someone else is already doing?

Some of my thinking about organizational effectiveness and how we measure social work impact has got me thinking about this in a new way, though.

Because, the truth is, there are many social problems where we’re really not making much progress. Whoever is occupying that field, so to speak, could apparently use some help figuring out the best way to attack the problem. Who’s to say that they’re not the wrong people to solve it (even if they did get there first), and that your approach might not be better?

At its core, I think a lot of the concern with duplication of services is that we’re still, too often, measuring “services”, rather than impact. And if your only deliverable is “an after-school program” rather than “increasing literacy rates among adolescent males” or something more, well, real, like that, then of course it’s going to be concerning to see several different programs all offering after-school programs, because it would arguably be more cost-efficient to centralize those resources.

But, in that scenario, the problem is with what we’re tracking (and not), not with the duplication itself. After all, if literacy rates are still lower than they should be, a funder or other interested party would be hard-pressed to argue that your organization couldn’t work on that social problem because “it’s already being taken care of.” It’s not.

But how do we make the case for innovative approaches to social problems, when there’s this preoccupation with avoiding what looks like duplication?

The key, I think, is to address the problem at its core: doing a better job of articulating the value we bring to the social endeavor, instead of talking about our outputs because it’s what we have figured out how to measure.

The book, the Wisdom of Crowds, talks about this in a roundabout way, providing evidence that multiple actors (most often in the scientific arena) conducting parallel experiments on the same problems, leads to richer understanding of the questions at hand and far greater confidence in the results. To achieve those gains, of course, we’ve got to be rigorously evaluating our interventions, demonstrating their impact against the baseline of the social problem, and making those results available to others committed to the same outcomes, so that we can learn from and adopt the best interventions.

But those are things that we should be doing for our own understanding, anyway, so that we’re sure that we’re headed in the right direction and likely to reach our destination. And, if that’s the case, then I think we’ll be able to make the case to the “no duplication” crowd that, after all, there’s an advantage in having traveling companions.

What do you think? Would such a shift away from the “no duplication under any circumstances” policy siphon off valuable resources? Is there too little overlap between the hard sciences and what we do in social work for these parallels to be useful? What have been your experiences with best practices work and outcomes research in social services? Funders, how would you respond to an organization making a case like this?

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