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Policy Evaluation vs. Program Evaluation Social Work

November 22, 2021

Social workers aim to promote and support a more equitable society. This goal is so important that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has embedded it into its code of ethics. Hitting this target requires different approaches, depending on the issue at hand. 

For example,  to address the issue of food insecurity — the lack of access to sufficient and safe food needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle — in a rural community, a social worker may implement programs such as charitable food drives to support families. They may also work to change policies impacting food insecurity, such as the U.S. Farm Bill that reauthorizes and provides funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

Once a social worker implements an initiative, they must conduct ongoing program and policy evaluations to ensure that they achieve the desired goals. An Online Doctor of Social Work (DSW) can provide social workers with the diverse skills to carry out these efforts. However, to conduct a proper evaluation, a social worker needs to understand the differences between policy evaluation and program evaluation. They should also know how the differences in these approaches can be thoughtfully integrated.

What Is Social Work Policy? 

Social work policies seek to improve frameworks that shape society — specifically local, state, and government regulations. These policies target systemic problems at their roots and aim to produce significant long-term changes that prevent residual issues from manifesting. 

The Farm Bill, for example, is a policy that funds programs that give low-income families better access to nutritious foods. The bill addresses the deeper issue of food insecurity directly and aims to dramatically reduce the issues that may spin off from a lack of accessible healthy food, such as an increase in chronic health issues. 

Policies are designed to improve access to care and resources for marginalized and underserved communities. They may address funding for and access to resources. For example, if a state is confronting an increase in substance use issues, social workers may promote policies providing extra state funding for free or low-cost substance use counseling.

What Are Social Work Programs? 

Policy alone is not useful if it is not put into practice. Social programs are used to implement policies, providing real-world actions and resources to enact change. Returning to the food insecurity example, the SNAP program can connect families with the benefits outlined through the policy stemming from the Farm Bill. 

The type of program a social worker can get involved with can depend on the social work specialization that they’ve chosen. In some cases, social workers may need to combine different social work programs to build a cohesive, comprehensive strategy involving several organizations. 

If the state agrees to a policy increasing funding for low-cost drug counseling, for example, a social work strategy may involve coordinating programs with community health clinics; staffing clinics with more substance use counselors; and liaising with community organizations, such as schools and churches, to raise awareness about the program’s existence.

Ultimately, a social work program can provide the infrastructure that can bring a social work policy to life. It can reduce the impact that various systemic issues and challenges may have on the vulnerable and marginalized and can also potentially correct the root causes of these large-scale problems. 

Strategies for Policy and Program Evaluation 

Regular program and policy evaluations help ensure that the policies and programs developed to further their aims are succeeding. When building a policy or program, 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, can be deemed to need low-cost substance use counseling. Evaluations address three main aspects: 

  • Content: The policy or program should clearly articulate goals and include a step-by-step plan for implementation within the given context (for example, a specific state). 
  • Implementation: It must be determined whether the policy can be put into action as intended using defined programs. This provides the social worker with an opportunity to identify barriers to implementation. 
  • Impact: Evaluators must determine whether the policy change and the resulting programs instituted can meet desired goals. For example, comparisons to similar policies can be used to predict policy and program impact.

In the case above, the question would be whether substance misuse 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 desired effect. For example, 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 can be better spent elsewhere.

Similarities and Differences Between Policy Evaluation and Program Evaluation in Social Work 

Policy and program evaluations in social work are closely intertwined and use similar approaches to assess the efficacy of initiatives. However, social workers need to evaluate them separately. Doing so can allow them to isolate any issues and identify where they stem from.

Models of Evaluation

A program may be evaluated using a logic model, for example, that assesses a program’s output and intended outcomes while considering variables that impact these outcomes. Consider an afterschool 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 relevant stakeholders identified to promote the policy’s adoption. 

Data Collection and Use

Social work program and policy evaluations 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 existing data. This can include studies of other policies’ effectiveness in instituting funding for school programs in other jurisdictions. 

Finally, the use of data varies when evaluating social work policies and programs. The program evaluation’s outcomes might be used to tweak service delivery to optimize its impact. For example, a social worker in a nonprofit leadership position might discover that many children do not know about the afterschool youth activity program that they have designed and flag the need to raise awareness. 

Conversely, if a policy evaluation’s outcomes lack the desired results, this 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.

The differences between policy evaluation and program evaluation are logical since the former focuses on issues on a macro level, and the latter focuses on issues on a micro level. However, the goals behind these two evaluations are consistent with each other, that is, designing policies and programs that operate at the highest level. Doing so provides the best opportunity for social workers to create meaningful change within a society. 

A Brighter Future Through Program Evaluation and Policy Evaluation  

Using methods such as policy evaluation 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 goals of supporting underrepresented and marginalized populations’ needs. These are the very elements that can make pursuing a role as a social worker a fulfilling career choice.

Individuals who are interested in contributing to this mission can benefit from Tulane’s Online DSW degree. The curriculum provides students with an extensive understanding of program and policy evaluations, including courses such as Program and Clinical Evaluation, a course that allows students to apply program evaluation and outcomes-related research design skills to a local agency. Explore the online program at the Tulane University School of Social Work, a leader in the field for 100 years, and embark on a path toward leadership that makes a difference.