This opens the door for collaboration, and lets others know we exist, and we are here to provide these services,” said Connie Baird-Thomas of the newly formed Evaluation and Research Group at the SSRC.
Conversations about the evaluation services they were already providing and could expand on lead Baird-Thomas, the associate director of the Social Science Center for Policy Studies and director of the Mississippi Health Policy Research Center; Sheena Gardner, an assistant research professor; and Angela Robertson, a research professor and associate director to begin discussions about the need for formalizing their evaluation efforts in a unit. Over the process of a year, they have begun working out the details of how to structure current work and build the capacity for future growth.
“We saw several needs and benefits, but specifically because of the way evaluations are funded, there’s normally a small amount of funding set aside to devote to evaluation research, and the issue we come across with short term work is we have to rearrange how our time is designated which can cause issues for several of the projects we are working with. With this idea, we are hoping to have a better balance of how researchers’ time and the funders’ money are used. We want this to be more efficient and productive for both groups,” Gardner said.
Although the team is just now beginning as an official group under the SSRC’s umbrella, they have a long history of completing evaluations. The team has worked on evaluations for state agencies, federal and private grants, and other groups for decades. Their recent or current work includes the Mississippi Department of Health, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, and the Mississippi Department of Corrections. They collectively have about 40 years’ experience with evaluations and research and each has education and training in relevant fields. Robertson has additional experience from her time working for a grant-funded program and learning the importance of evaluation as the administrator of a youth substance abuse treatment center.
“We have already built strong connections with agencies, and we want to continue to solidify that,” explained Gardner. “Additionally, being a part of the SSRC we have a lot of support here to ask questions whether that’s on research design or the best way to do something. We also have access to other resources like the survey or message lab if the group required those services.”
In addition to this history in the work, they also note that the need for evaluations is only growing. Robertson explained that federal funding now requires an evaluation and as agencies must go to further lengths to show the usefulness of their programs and the results of those programs, skilled evaluators are needed even more.
“Many times people consider evaluation after they’ve completed a proposal. If we are brought in early, we can be proactive. We want people when they hear evaluation to turn to us,” Baird-Thomas said.
They emphasize the need to bring in the evaluator early in the process because it allows the materials to be used throughout the process. If included when the grantees are applying for the proposal, they can give a better estimate of the time it will take to complete the evaluation and the measurement tools needed.
“We can help you think about evaluation upfront. When you’re working on your application, develop a research design. With this design, you’ll know exactly what data to collect, how to collect, the outcomes you’re looking for, and how to measure those things,” said Baird-Thomas.
Additionally, as the evaluation process continues throughout the life of the grant, an evaluator that is included in the work and regularly updated can assist the project manager in changes or modification to data collection or measurement tools, so that the organization is collecting appropriate and relevant data. Those modifications might include looking for new measurement tools or helping develop tools that can be more easily accessed.
“We are using the same skills that you would in a research project. Our backgrounds include work in quantitative and qualitative research. We bring strong expertise in the methods,” Robertson said.
“We can provide and help with certain services and then help the organizations build capacity so they can continue collecting what they need. They might not be able to afford a full-service survey from the survey lab, but we could help them develop something in-house that they can distribute themselves,” Baird-Thomas said.
Finally, the evaluators will provide a final report of the project and its results. They use all of the data that has been collected throughout the life of the project whether that is surveys, focus groups, interviews, or additional methods. With this, they will show the effectiveness of each of the objectives of the program. This report will, of course, be sent to the funder, but additionally, it could be used in other methods like showing the public the final work or showing the sustainability of the efforts.
The team has now solidified their offerings with a website listing the services they offer, references for previous work, and contact information.
“There’s been a steady demand and increase for these services. We’ve had more and more people asking us to do work. We hope this mechanism will help better distribute the work and assist these groups,” Robertson said.
For more information, visit evaluation.ssrc.msstate.edu.