Making the most of your community voice
It is no secret that social programs are all about the community – whether designing, delivering or evaluating a program we’re all working to improve the lives of, or outcomes for, populations in a particular area or sector.
In recognition of this, it is critical that the views of program stakeholders are captured at all stages of the program lifecycle. Leaving this to the last minute (ie. during evaluations) runs the risk of not being able to adequately understand what impact you’ve had in the treatment area.
After being engaged to deliver a recent summative evaluation, our team encountered these exact challenges:
> community expectations about program impact and outcomes far exceeded the original intent, or what was reasonably possible with the program design
> technological advances over the program period had substantially increased community expectations of what constituted a ‘good’ outcome or product from the program
> community members pre-program experiences were not captured or documented providing limited comparison point to assess impact
> limited consideration had been made of how stakeholders would be engaged to understand program impact prior to commencement of the evaluation.
Based on the experiences of our team we’ve identified five timely reminders to make sure you can maximise and manage your community input:
1. Plan your engagement early
During program planning and delivery it can be tempting to treat planning for stakeholder engagement (particularly as part of an evaluation) as a ‘future problem’. When you are dealing with a large community without clear access channels this can result in engagement planning being rushed (we’re all working to time limits!), lacking the strategic thought to ensure you have a representative sample and true feeling of what is happening on the ground. Take the time to consider who you may need input from and the best way to reach them early in the program. If you are targeting whole communities think about:
a. Your key stakeholders and primary audience – are there any individuals or organisations you must speak with?
b. Contact multipliers – who are the individuals or organisations in the community that can help you to get your message (or survey) to the right people?
c. Local media channels – How do people within the community access their news? Depending on what you’re looking at, this could include anything ranging from media companies to local community newsletters and bulletins
d. Canvassing the population – Would it be beneficial to get into the community and speak to people in the street?
2. Make sure your target community understands the scope and purpose of interventions as they are being rolled out
Misalignment of program understanding and intended outcomes has the potential to result in a huge disappointment gap for your stakeholders. If they think you’re working to give them an Ferrari and you only provide a Matchbox Ferrari, it’s unlikely that they will be left with positive feelings about your program (even if a Matchbox Ferrari was your plan all along!). Engaging with the community as part of program design and implementation will help to manage these expectations and ensure that the community has an accurate understanding of what is about to happen.
3. Maintain visibility of key messaging in outsourced programs
If you have been able to outsource delivery of a program it is likely that your provider will take some responsibility for communicating with your target audience. While this is great for you from a workload perspective, it is important to remain vigilant and ensure that the correct messaging is being provided. Make sure that you have visibility of what communication activities are occurring, when and what messaging/documents are being provided to ensure your provider doesn’t inadvertently set up an expectations gap.
4. Carefully plan who should be sending the message
When there are multiple parties involved in delivering or supporting a program it can be challenging to work out who is best placed to communicate a particular message. Do not make this decision lightly! Even if you are working with an outsourced provider carefully consider who should be responsible for what messaging. Where there is a potential for confusion or conflict of interest, it is important to make sure that you are the spokesperson for your program
5. Baseline and monitor your stakeholders experience
This is particularly important for longer programs. Without having an accurate picture of how community members felt before the program it can be challenging to assess what has changed (particularly where community expectations of a product/outcome evolve overtime). While you can ask reflective questions and seek to understand whether stakeholders feel an improvement has been made, a pretest-posttest rating of satisfaction using consistent measures will give you a more accurate feel. If you have the time and budget collecting information from key stakeholders prior to program commencement, during the implementation/delivery phase and then once you have