Our demonstration and evaluation research

SRDC’s demonstration and evaluation projects seek to answer such questions as: Can social programs be designed to reduce poverty while encouraging self-sufficiency? Can programs improve the long-term prospects of young Canadians by changing negative behaviours (such as school dropout) into positive behaviours (such as high school completion and participation in post-secondary education)? For whom do programs work best? Are they cost-effective? Can innovative programs be replicated? What factors explain success?

The key to knowing whether a program “works” is a well-designed impact study, one that can determine what difference the program makes over and above what people would do on their own and independent of any economic or other external forces that may be operating. To provide reliable answers, a large number of participants may be required, it may also be necessary to follow people for several years after enrolment in the impact study. Collecting information over time allows trends to be identified — the longer the period of time, the more likely it is that the full benefits and cost will be captured.

While an impact study tells us whether the program works, it is mainly through implementation research that we understand how and why it works (or fails to work). This component of an evaluation study is based mainly on observational research conducted across study sites, and on interviews with policy-makers, managers, and program delivery staff, as well as discussions with the clients of the program themselves. Implementation research can identify gaps between policy and practice, workflow bottlenecks, program features that are underutilized, and participant flows among the program components that are working well and those that are not. It can also provide feedback on program content and quality.

Finally, a benefit-cost analysis combines impact data with operational cost information to assess whether a program is cost-effective. It is not enough simply to identify the benefits associated with the program, it is equally important to know that the value of those benefits exceeds the costs of producing them. Typically, this analysis is conducted from the perspectives of government budgets, program participants, and society as a whole.

When these evaluation tools are combined, managers can make direct links between practice and policy, and between impacts and costs.