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Policy Evaluation vs. Program Evaluation: Key Differences and Why Both Are Important

Three social workers evaluate data on a laptop.

Social workers aim to create a more equitable society. Toward this end, they use different approaches to tackle a variety of issues, such as food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to sufficient and safe food needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. For example, to address food insecurity in a rural community, social workers may implement programs such as charitable food drives to support families. They may also work to change policies impacting food insecurity, such as the United States federal government’s Farm Bill that reauthorizes and provides funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. To determine whether these initiatives are successful, social workers must conduct ongoing program and policy evaluations. Programs like the Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work provide social workers with the diverse skills needed to carry out these efforts.

What Is Social Work Policy?

Social work policies seek to improve frameworks that shape society, specifically local, state, and government regulations. Programs then put these policies into action. For instance, while the Farm Bill authorizes spending to give low-income families better access to nutritious foods, the SNAP program connects families with the benefits. Policies are designed to improve circumstances for marginalized and underserved communities. They may address funding for and access to resources. If a state is confronting an increase in substance abuse issues, social workers may seek to promote policies providing extra state funding for free or low-cost substance abuse counseling via community-based health centers.

What Are Social Work Programs?

Policy alone is of no use if it is not put into practice. Social programs are used to implement policies, providing real-world actions and resources to enact change. If the state agrees to a policy increasing funding for low-cost drug counseling, for instance, organizations put that into action. This might involve coordinating programs with community health clinics, staffing clinics with more substance abuse counselors, and liaising with community organizations such as schools and churches to raise awareness about the program’s existence.

Evaluating Policy and Programs

To make sure policies and the programs developed to further their aims are succeeding, regular policy and program evaluation are needed. First, the policy itself must be developed based on a needs assessment — the need determines the aim. A community with a high overdose rate, for example, could be deemed to need low-cost counseling. Evaluation addresses three main aspects: content, implementation, and impact. In terms of content, the policy or program should clearly articulate goals and include a step-by-step plan for implementation within the given context (for instance, a specific state). In terms of implementation, the question is whether the policy can be put into action as intended using defined programs; this is an opportunity to identify barriers to implementation. Evaluators must ask whether the policy change and the resulting programs instituted can meet its desired goals. For instance, comparisons to similar policies could be used to predict policy and program impact.

In the case above, the question would be whether substance abuse cases decrease after funding for assistance is increased. This can be determined using the following tactics:

  • Impact evaluations seek to determine whether the program achieved the intended effect. For instance, does the overdose rate decrease after instituting a policy creating funding for low-cost drug counseling?

  • Performance monitoring provides details on whether the program is operating smoothly and whether certain aspects of the program proved more successful than others.

  • Process evaluations address bottlenecks in service delivery, identifying problems so that solutions can be developed.

  • Efficiency evaluations assess the program’s expenses and attempt to determine whether the resources put into the program are paying off — or whether they could be better spent elsewhere.

Similarities and Differences Between Policy Evaluation and Program Evaluation

Policy and program evaluation are closely intertwined and use similar approaches to assess the efficacy of social work initiatives. A program may be evaluated using a logic model, for instance, which assesses a program’s output and intended outcomes while considering variables that impact these outcomes. Consider an after-school program targeting underserved youth developed by a community organization. The logic model of evaluation could examine intermediate outputs, such as the enhancement of protective factors that give children gainful activities to engage in after school, and then examine outcomes such as delinquency, school failure, and drug use.

Policy evaluation likewise relies on real-world data but also requires a research-driven framework when policies are first being shaped: The policy must be adequately described, evidence for its potential efficacy gathered, and, finally, relevant stakeholders identified to promote the policy’s adoption. Social work program and policy evaluation thus also differ in terms of the factors considered during evaluation. While the above program evaluation example involves gathering real-world data once the program is underway, policy evaluation can also involve looking comparatively at data that already exists — such as studies of other policies’ effectiveness in instituting funding for school programs in other jurisdictions. Finally, how data is used varies when evaluating social work policies and programs. The program evaluation’s outcomes might be used to tweak service delivery, for instance. Evaluators might discover that many children do not know about the program and flag the need to raise awareness. The policy evaluation’s outcomes will mean returning to the drawing board and redrafting written policy proposals as needed. For example, debates have taken place among legislators considering SNAP benefits as to whether program participants should be allowed to use these federally funded benefits to buy unhealthy foods such as soft drinks and candy. Some have proposed rewriting this policy so that the program bars participants from making such purchases — a change that may still come.

A Future Building and Evaluating Successful Social Work Programs and Policies

Using methods such as policy and program evaluation, social workers study whether initiatives designed to help populations in need are fulfilling their aims. Such monitoring is imperative if social work is to meet its goal of creating more just societies and serving underrepresented and marginalized populations’ needs. Individuals who are interested in contributing to this mission can benefit from Tulane University’s Online Doctorate in Social Work degree. The curriculum provides students with an extensive understanding of program and policy evaluation, including courses such as Program and Clinical Evaluation, which allows students to apply program evaluation and outcomes-related research design skills to a local agency. Explore the online program at Tulane University’s School of Social Work, a leader in the field for 100 years, and embark on a path toward leadership that makes a difference.

Recommmended Readings:

What Is Social Work Program Design and Evaluation?

Dr. Coleen Cicale: Prioritizing People in Public Policy

Sources

American Journal of Public Health, “A Social Work Approach to Policy: Implications for Population Health”

American Journal of Public Health, “Health in All Social Work Programs: Findings from a US National Analysis”

Annual Review of Public Health, “Aligning Programs and Policies to Support Food Security and Public Health Goals in the United States”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Brief 1: Overview of Policy Evaluation”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Evaluating Program, Practice, and Service Effectiveness

The Urban Institute, “Evaluation Strategies for Human Services Programs”

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Social Services

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