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After coordinating the work of several separate programs for families and children into one initiative, Georgia is now tackling evaluating the reform of its systems. Betsy Martin of Harvard Family Research Project shares their approach.

The state of Georgia, ranking low on most national measures of child well-being, knew it had to take bold action to help its children and families. So a few years ago, state, community, and business leaders forged the Georgia Initiative for Children and Families to coordinate the work of many separate programs into a comprehensive plan for improving services to families and children. Initiative partners [see table below] report that evaluating their statewide systems reform is almost as challenging as the reform itself.

Georgia’s partners have devised a three pronged approach to evaluation:

  • Establishing community and statewide outcome goals for children.
  • Developing methods to evaluate the effectiveness of their collaboration and service integration efforts.
  • Creating an evaluation model to be used across the state.

Lead by the Departments of Human Resources, Education, Children and Youth Services, and Medical Assistance and the Office of Planning and Budgets, representatives from each of the Initiative partners have formed an evaluation team to coordinate efforts and develop the knowledge and expertise they need.

Georgia Initiative for Children and Families

Partners Purpose
Youth Futures Authority Change policies and funding of participating institutions to improve youth outcomes.
The Family Connection Support families to improve educational, teen pregnancy and substance abuse outcomes.
The Atlanta Project Improve quality of life in Atlanta by empowering citizens to overcome poverty.
Success by Six Make every child successful by six through better parenting, improved access to services, and collaboration.
Partnership for Excellence in Education/Georgia 2000 Raise effectiveness of the state’s educational system.
Certified Literate Communities Develop community-based strategies for adult learning.
Georgia Cities in Schools, Inc. Bring community resources into schools.
Governor’s Pre-Kindergarten Program Provide early childhood experiences and family services to at-risk 4-year-old children.
Georgia Academy for Children and Youth Professionals Provide training and information to child-serving organizations.
Georgians for Children Advocate for statewide changes that will improve the quality of life for children.
Governor’s Commission on Children and Youth Coordinate services to children and youth and administer federal grants.
Child Care Council Work to assure that every child will have high-quality affordable, accessible child care services.
Children’s Trust Fund Support community-based services and programs to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Outcomes and Indicators

Building the capacity to measure how the lives of children and families are affected by the Initiative as a whole and by its component programs is a key goal. “Ultimately, we would love to see every community in the state, and the state as a whole, have a bottom line for children expressed in outcomes for children,” explained Becky Winslow, special assistant for Evaluation, Information, and Service System Change.

Getting to that bottom line is tricky, and Georgia is using both state and local routes. Mature programs such as Youth Futures in Savannah have led efforts to understand why they have poor outcomes among children in their communities and how they can do things differently to achieve better outcomes. “At the local level, we already have a strategy in place and are implementing it,” explained Otis Johnson, executive director of Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority. “We’re now working to meld that into the developing state strategy. The challenge is to have congruent local and state strategies for outcomes.”

The Initiative’s evaluation team is well aware of that challenge, and it is working to establish common outcome goals for the state and local communities. “We’re starting with the outcomes we want and identifying the indicators that will get us there,” said Janet Bittner, co-chair of the Initiative from the Department of Human Resources. In 1995, the team, along with the Governor’s Policy Council for Children and Families will develop a process to build broad stakeholder participation in identifying and owning specific outcome indicators.

Collaboration and Integration

In addition to looking at how systems reform will improve the lives of children and families, the Initiative wants to be able to assess and, where necessary, improve its ability to collaborate and integrate services. Among Georgia’s first attempts to do so was the 1993 evaluation of the Family Connection program, which depends on partnerships among families, communities and state agencies to improve educational outcomes for children.

The Family Connection contracted with the Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to undertake an evaluation which assessed collaboration and service integration at the local, state, and state-to-local levels. “We started looking at collaboration and service integration together, and then we found it more useful to separate them,” explained John O’Looney, project director for the Vinson Institute.

The Vinson Institute developed two survey instruments. The first, a collaboration survey, asked the Family Connection partners to assess progress in four basic areas of collaboration: common wishes and goals; shared values and attitudes; joint tasks and rewards; and fair distributions and exchanges. In each of the four basic areas, the partners indicated that local collaboration was more effective than collaboration at the state or state-to-local levels. At all three levels, collaboration was most effective in the areas of common goals and shared values and attitudes.

In the second survey—service integration—respondents were asked to rank progress in planning and implementation of service integration features and to explain their responses. Responses revealed that Family Connections was most effective in the areas of co-location and shared facilities planning, coordinated case management, and family-centered and -driven practices. On measures of service integration such as integrated case management, shared governance, and “hooked” and “linked” programs, Family Connections needed work, and the evaluation provided the information around which improvements could be focused.

“The knowledge gained is helping us develop a more detailed set of progress markers in service integration,” O’Looney explained. These markers are being designed to stimulate local service integration planning efforts and to assist sites measuring achievements at all levels of service integration. “We are realizing that there are many routes to the same end and that we will have to learn how to measure progress on each of these routes,” he added.

Further Reading

O’Looney, J. (in press) Collaboration and social services integration: A single state’s experience with developmental and non-developmental models. Administration in Social Work.

For more information on the progress markers in service integration mentioned in this article, call John O’Looney at 706-542-2736.

The Evaluation Model

As a result of its experiences with collaboration and service integration and with early efforts to establish common outcome goals, the Georgia Initiative is developing an evaluation model for use by all its partners across the state. The model, which includes formation, process, short-term impacts, and long-term outcomes, is in its early stages. “We haven’t fully articulated yet how we are going to put the model to use,” Winslow explained. “But the goal is to have data to feed back into program people so they can use it to make changes which lead to better outcomes. People are hungry for this stuff.”

State reformers across the country will all stand to gain from Georgia’s experiences.

Betsy Martin, M.P.A., HFRP

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project