Imagining Evidence-Informed Practice in Ontario’s Grassroots Youth Sector: What We Know for Sure
by Uzo Anucha, MSW, PhD
Provincial Academic Director, YouthREX
Associate Professor, School of Social Work
True or false: words like “evidence-informed” and “program evaluation” do not fit with how smaller, community-based youth programs — those that fiercely pursue social justice and equity for youth — go about their business?
False! YouthREX knows this for sure from our experience over the last three years supporting youth programs across Ontario with program evaluation.
We have seen that “evaluation” and “evidence” aren’t words that only make sense to big, clinical programs. Community-based, grassroots youth programs — like those we work with across Ontario — get it; they understand that integrating evaluation and evidence into their practice makes them more reflective, and able to improve, change, and grow to ensure that youth participants experience the outcomes their programs are working towards.
“The evidence-informed practitioner carefully considers what research evidence tells them in the context of a particular child, family or service, and then weighs this up alongside knowledge drawn from professional experience and the views of service users to inform decisions about the way forward.”
-Barratt, M. & Hodson, R. (2006). Firm foundations: a practical guide to organisational support for the use of research evidence. Dartington, England: Research in Practice.
Since YouthREX launched in December 2014, we have been amazed by how Ontario’s youth sector has embraced evaluation. For example, our Customized Evaluation Supports (a comprehensive process that guides programs through our evaluation framework) and our Online Program Evaluation Certificate have been wildly well received. I frequently joke that it is harder to get into our Online Program Evaluation Certificate than into a medical school in Ontario: out of hundreds of applications, we can only accept about 40% of applicants.
Demand for these programs shows that youth programs understand that evaluation can support the work they do. Evaluation can provide the tools they need to understand, measure, and track if their programs achieved their intended outcomes and impacts. Equally important, evaluation can provide the tools for programs to understand how they are successful and how they can be improved.
At the same time, evidence-informed practice can guide youth programs to examples of what works for similar programs.
Evidence and evaluation support youth programs to do what they do, better
Youth programs have good questions about evidence and evaluation, such as: Can evidence include knowledge from our practice and lived experience, or is evidence only from research? Where can we access evidence? How do evidence and evaluation work together? How can we integrate what we learn from evidence into our programs?
Informed by such questions, YouthREX embraces a nuanced understanding of evidence that honours evidence from practice and lived experience as credible sources of knowledge, equal to evidence from research.
We know for sure that evidence must combine knowledge from research, practice, and lived experience to speak to the work that youth programs do: providing young people with the skills and resources they need to overcome challenging circumstances and make positive contributions to their communities.
In line with our inclusive understanding of evidence, The eXchange for Youth Work – our online hub that provides youth programs with accessible evidence 24/7 – has a diverse collection of evidence on a variety of issues and youth populations in accessible formats, including easy-to-read factsheets and research summaries.
Working with youth programs on evaluation, we have witnessed the value of integrating evidence into youth programming – and how evidence and evaluation can work together. In the first stage of our Customized Evaluation Supports, the Discovery Phase, youth programs ask themselves an important question as they develop a program logic model: Why do we expect our program to achieve our goals? Though this phase is a prelude to program evaluation, it is quite impactful on its own, driving programs to think about their expected outcomes and how these are connected to what is known from evidence.
In working with programs on evaluation, we have realized that there is an opportunity to provide direct supports to youth programs to identify their evidence and data needs, plan for these needs, and then address them in a systematic and coordinated way — alongside the evaluation supports that YouthREX already provides. Youth programs need direct supports to use evidence to strengthen their program design and to develop logic models that ground their work in a clear program theory — even if they are not yet ready for evaluation.
YouthREX’s Youth Program Supports does exactly this — expanding our services to youth programs beyond evaluation supports, and providing youth programs in Ontario with support at every step of their program development.
From one-on-one supports with integrating evidence into intentional program design, to developing a program logic model that includes clearly identified goals, objectives, activities, and expected outcomes, it’s all part of our Service Pledge to meet youth programs where they are at.
The goal of our new suite of Youth Program Supports (YPS) is to strengthen the use of evidence in the design and development of youth programs, while supporting programs in evaluating, understanding, and sharing the difference they are making for youth across Ontario.
We invite you to check out our Youth Program Supports and get in touch with us to let us know what you think!
We look forward to continuing to create spaces for critical conversations with our stakeholders around the nature and role of evidence in youth work.