As we have previously discussed in our series of posts on Structuring Engagement, conducting a successful engagement process requires plans tailored to fit your community. A specific plan for evaluation, designed at the outset of the process, will help you understand, verify, and improve the outcomes of engagement processes within your community. Developing such a plan has several other benefits as well. For instance, setting up a plan for evaluation will help you clearly identify and communicate goals for the process. Identifying potential outcomes and how progress will be evaluated and reported also assures the public that the process is not just ‘window dressing’ but a serious and legitimate effort at public engagement. By discussing the methods for measuring outcomes, you can help to better frame public communication both at the outset and throughout the project, as well as at the end.
Here are a few questions you can consider to help you design an evaluation plan:
- What is the purpose of our engagement process, both substantively and procedurally?
- Who are we trying to engage and why?
- Who are the audiences for our evaluation results? Are their interests similar or different?
- Given our overall purposes and our audiences, what is our purpose in providing evaluations of the process?
- What sorts of information and reporting formats will help both us and our audiences better understand the outcomes of the engagement process?
- What types of information are readily available and what additional information will need to be collected?
- How can this additional information be most easily and most cost effectively collected?
- How (and how often) will this information be collected, analyzed and reported? (Note that the answer to this may differ depending on the different types of information being collected and the purpose for its collection).
Note that the results of your evaluation do not need to be statistically significant to be useful. In fact, trying to make your evaluations into statistical data collection projects may distract you from learning about the more qualitative accomplishments made during engagement processes and building a rich dialogue. Instead, think about evaluation as a way to gather information that can help inform, without controlling, outcomes. Ongoing gathering and sharing of information collected, with an invitation for further feedback, can improve both communication and analysis, and assist you and your community identify and make progress toward common goals.