Progressive community advocates, researchers and policy analysts argue that comprehensive community development interventions are a crucial component of the policy and social change needed to address deep-seated problems such as health inequities. But how do we know what works? I was on a panel at a recent Tamarack Institute three day Learning Community on Evaluating Community: Capturing and Making Sense of Community Outcomes. It was a tremendous example of not just how to make sense of incredibly complex social problems such as poverty, disadvantaged neighbourhoods and pervasive health and other inequalities, but how to think about driving action to solve the problems:
- the focus was on challenges of understanding, charting and assessing complex cross-sectoral and multi-level social, policy and organizational interventions;
- these are initiatives seeking to change complex social problems in equally complex community settings and policy and political environments;
- the concern was not the usual evaluation of individual programs, but the overall impact of comprehensive community initiatives on the problems they were trying to solve and the communities in which they are based.
I was asked to discuss:
- the experience of comprehensive community initiatives and their potential to address ‘wicked’ policy problems such as systemic poverty and health inequalities;
- how to understand and evaluate the impact of such complex community initiatives;
- more specifically, to comment on a realist evaluation approach and how it could contribute;
- all of this to help develop the evaluation, learning and innovation necessary to guide and drive community impact.
The workshop took the form of on-stage interviews by Mark Cabaj with myself and Teresa Bellefontaine, of the federal government’s Policy Research Initiative, who spoke on evaluating place-based approaches; followed by general discussion.
These notes include the questions posed in advance and my talking points in preparation. Of course, on the day, these weren’t the actual questions asked or answers given as the discussion unfolded. But the issues raised are critical to understanding and driving complex social, policy and community change, so we thought they may still be valuable. As always, we would be interested in what readers think of these ideas.