A program evaluation employs social research methods to investigate the implementation and impact of public programs. Government agencies, school systems, nonprofit agencies operating grant-funded programs, public health organizations, and others - all conduct evaluations or contract with evaluation professionals. Program evaluation is rigorous, involving extensive research and analysis, but can reveal important findings that help agencies gauge program impact and improve services.
The Evaluation Process
Decide the purpose of your evaluation. Some program evaluations assess the program's implementation so as to improve service delivery. Others gauge the extent to which the program has achieved its goals. Increasingly, most program evaluation is interested in a program's impact, or its effects beyond the stated goals or objectives. Every public program, after all, has unintended effects, even if it achieves what it sets out to do.
Develop a program evaluation plan. This plan organizes your evaluation, specifies the questions you hope to answer, and the means by which you will try to answer them. During the planning process, you should meet with the program director or manager. During this meeting, find out what data, if any, the program staff has as part of program operations. This will give you a head start in data collection and prevent duplication of effort.
Construct appropriate measures for determining the outcomes of your evaluation. If, for example, you are evaluating a school program that provides tutoring in mathematics for middle school students, a measure of the program's success would be the performance on standardized math tests by students who participated in tutoring versus the performance of those who did not.
Collect and analyze your data. The program manager may have a set of data already in a spreadsheet, or you can enter data into your own spreadsheet, along with any additional data that you collect. The purpose of your evaluation will determine the type of analysis you should conduct. Analytical techniques in program evaluation range from simple descriptive statistics to linear regression techniques. Your statistical or research methods book can help you determine the most appropriate analysis method.
Report your results. This is usually done in the form of a written report, but in some instances done as a presentation. When writing a report, structure it in such a way that the intended readers (usually the program manager and other decision-makers) can easily find the information that they need.
Charts and graphics are an important part of any good evaluation report. Don't overlook qualitative methods. Combining qualitative and quantitative techniques can lead to an evaluation report that is rich in detail and empirical evidence.
A variety of issues, especially financial and political ones, can affect the size and scope of your evaluation.
Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.