One of the ways I earn my living is by evaluating service programs. People are often wary of program evaluation, since evaluation is a word with many meanings, many of these meanings negative. In research, though, evaluation has a very simple and neutral meaning. It is simply determining whether an event of interest has happened.
Program evaluation, therefore, is simply a matter of determining whether a program is doing the things that it is supposed to be doing. I prefer to look on it, in fact, as giving a program a chance to show what it can do. So, if you're going to show what a program can do, how do you go about it?
First of all you need a plan – a statement of what the program is supposed to be doing. If you're evaluating a program for the first time, the first step is likely to be the development of a program logic model. A program logic model is simply a description of the steps in the program and the decisions made once steps are completed.
Once you have the program logic model, you then determine if the program is following the model. Obviously, to do that you need records. A crucial part of any service program is a system of records which provides:
- descriptions of the services being provided to each consumer,
- descriptions of the goals which these services are to help the consumer achieve,
- measures of the extent to which the goals have been achieved, and
- descriptions of the decisions made as a result of the achievement or non-achievement of goals.
Obviously judicious examination of records like those is going to help you determine if the program logic model is being followed. If the program is not implementing the plan fully, then you can take steps to improve its chances of doing so.
The records system will also permit a thoroughgoing outcome evaluation. Accurate estimates of the program's success in achieving its ultimate goals can easily be calculated.
Furthermore, a good system of records will enable program staff or anyone else to perform the outcome evaluation by themselves. When you require an external evaluation, for example, you won't have to pay your independent consultant to develop an evaluation from the ground up. The evaluative standards will be set, and the evidence will be collected. Your consultant can spend time doing something more sophisticated and effective, such as studying specific aspects of the program that you consider important.
In short, the goal of program evaluation is to make the program transparent. If program evaluation is successful, there will be general agreement about what the goals of the program are, about the ways in which the program should be trying to achieve these goals, and about what the world should look like if the program is successful. There will also be clear standards by which anyone can reliably measure the degree of success achieved by the program. That also makes evaluation more bearable for staff, since they don't have to worry about their work being evaluated by standards of which they have not been informed.
Doing all this can be a lot of work. However, the benefits are enormous, and you need spend no more money, in either the short or long term, than you could end up spending on less productive approaches.