Urban Wire Nine Ways to Strengthen Program Evaluations by Centering Community Voice
Amelia Coffey
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Over the past decade, researchers and evaluators of community-based programs and policies have increasingly recognized the value of lived experience as expertise and evidence and have expanded use of community-engaged research methods (CEM). They acknowledge that to understand local needs, challenges, and opportunities, it’s essential to include the people most affected by local interventions in the research and evaluation process. Doing so can make research studies and program evaluations more equitable.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movement shed a glaring light on the structural racism baked into every aspect of our society. They also highlighted the necessity and value of lifting up community voices. Earlier this year, President Biden reinforced its importance when he issued an executive order that named community engagement as a key method for advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities, suggesting that interest in community-engaged methods will continue to grow.

The Urban Institute’s Family-Centered Community Change (FCCC) evaluation evolved along with the CEM field. Our team recently wrapped up a seven-year evaluation of two-generation service partnerships—which aim to help families move out of poverty though serving both parents and children—in three high-poverty neighborhoods of color across the country. Over the course of the evaluation, we increasingly engaged community members, adapting as we went based on our successes and challenges. Here are some key lessons on elevating community voice in community-based evaluations.

  1. Prioritize community engagement when selecting program and evaluation grantees. Select evaluators with cultural competencies necessary to gain community members’ trust, and consider partnering with local evaluation professionals.
  2. Solidify a common understanding of and commitment to community engagement among stakeholders in both evaluation and programming throughout all phases of the work. Having local and outside stakeholders understand the importance of engaging as partners in the evaluation, including what the partnership will involve and when, is critical. To maintain this understanding throughout the effort, develop a process for communicating key concepts and goals to new staff and stakeholder organizations.
  3. Foster a safe space for feedback by making clear commitments about how shared decisionmaking will work, and follow through on these commitments.
    Outside stakeholders who would be perceived as the loci of power in a traditional evaluation—external evaluators and funders—should flatten power hierarchies so community members feel comfortable stepping into the role of evaluation partners and making decisions. 
  4. Build relationships to share ownership and decisionmaking among a diverse set of community stakeholders, particularly program participants, at the beginning and throughout the work. Relationship building involves working through networks with long-established community relationships. It’s also critical to ensure community stakeholders bring the community’s diverse experiences and perspectives to the table. 
  5. Ensure local and outside stakeholders have the knowledge and skills to foster engagement and partnership. Offer training and accessible information sharing for stakeholders less familiar with evaluation methods.
  6. Establish expectations for sharing information and products with all evaluation partners to keep them engaged. Ensure everyone involved in creating products has a common understanding of why engagement is important.
  7. Set initial goals and priorities for community engagement, and establish a process to update those goals and priorities as stakeholder preferences and conditions on the ground change.
  8. Establish a commitment from the funder at the outset to fund community engagement initiative design and evaluation. This includes planning multiple budgets according to different potential stakeholder preferences and ways the initiative might evolve.
  9. Compensate program participants for their time, just as service providers, evaluators, and other professionals are compensated for theirs. And make efforts to minimize participation burden by breaking down barriers like lack of time or transportation.

Applying these lessons takes intention and resources, but these efforts are worthwhile investments in a more equitable research and evaluation process.

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Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Structural racism in research, data, and technology
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center