Maximize Your Evaluation Dollars
by Edwin Zedlewski with Mary B. Murphy
You are a State program administrator and want to know
the impact your programs have. One statewide program provides
mentors to both teens and their parents. Should you try
to discover whether the mentored teens are less prone to
delinquency? If you find that they are, should you dig deeper
and determine if it is because of the teen mentor or the
You are a county manager who funds a local program that
makes housing and transitional services available to offenders
returning to their communities. Could an evaluation decipher
which aspects of the program are the most influential in
determining whether clients recidivate?
You manage a Federal program supported in part by funds
from an Attorney General’s initiative to make troubled
families more functional. How can you increase the program’s
prospects for success?
One of the most important aspects of managing a criminal
justice program is ensuring that the program is meeting
its objectives. An evaluation is the best way to accomplish
But evaluations can be expensive, particularly evaluations
to identify the precise impact a program is having. A rigorous,
scientific impact evaluation typically costs NIJ between
$500,000 and $1.5 million. A poor choice about which programs
are suitable for evaluation is more than just a waste of
time—it’s a waste of millions of dollars.
The NIJ Approach: An Evaluability Assessment
NIJ has developed a way to identify programs that are likely
to yield evaluations that maximize the agency’s return
on its investments. By adopting NIJ’s approach, program
administrators at all levels of government may save considerable
time and money.
The first step is to assess a program’s “evaluability”—that
is, to gauge which programs can sustain a rigorous outcome
evaluation. The evaluability assessment takes 1 to 5 days
and is guided by some common sense questions:
- Are program components stable or
- Can we trace logical and plausible
connections between a program’s activities and its
- Are there enough cases or observations
to permit statistically robust conclusions?
- Can we isolate the program’s effects from other
related forces operating in the community?
Many programs can be summarily rejected after answering
these initial questions. For example, a program that has
few participants would be unsuitable for a rigorous, scientific
evaluation. Alternatively, one that would require 10 to
20 years of followup is not a practical candidate for a
low-cost, 2-year evaluation.
Take a Closer Look
Next, NIJ reads the complete files of potential programs.
Programs that are funded through a grant, for example, will
have a grant application that explains the program’s
goals and activities, developmental history, quality of
the data systems, and numbers of clients served. Typically,
the initial screening involved in this step reduces the
list of candidates to 20 to 25 percent of the original pool.
If additional insight is needed, evaluators can conduct
telephone interviews with the program’s management,
review progress reports and other grant materials, and gather
other information to answer outstanding questions about
the programs. They should ask the following questions:
- What do we already know about programs
like these from the research literature?
- What could an evaluation of this
- Which audiences would benefit from
an evaluation and what could they do with the findings?
- Are the program managers interested
in being evaluated?
- Is the program director already planning
an evaluation? If so, evaluators should further inquire:
- What data systems exist that
would facilitate an evaluation?
- What key data elements are contained
in these systems?
- Are there data to estimate unit
costs of services or activities?
- Are there data about possible
- How useful are the data systems to an impact evaluation?
Program managers must be able to explain how the program’s
primary activities contribute to its eventual goals and
identify other local programs serving similar populations
that could be used for outcome comparison.
Conduct a Site Visit
If the program seems promising after a rigorous screening,
a site visit may be in order. Site visits usually take an
entire day and spark rich interactions that reveal operational
strengths and flaws that might not otherwise be visible.
During a site visit, evaluators should determine:
- If the program is being implemented
as described in the application.
- What components of the program would
be the most sensible to evaluate.
- What outcomes could be assessed and by what measures.
Next, evaluators should speak with the following individuals:
- Key program staff. Do staff members
tell consistent stories about the program? Are their backgrounds
appropriate for the program’s activities?
- Program partners. What services do
partners provide or receive? How integral are they to
the success of the program? What do partners see as the
program’s strengths and weaknesses?
- Program director. Does the director understand the demands
that an evaluation will place on staff? Will the director
make the changes necessary to support the evaluation?
Assess the Target Population. Evaluators should
determine a number of factors about the target population—its
size, its characteristics, and the way in which program
staff identify it. Is entry into the program voluntary?
Who will be excluded from the program? Evaluators also must
learn if participants’ characteristics have changed
over time, and whether there are shortcomings or gaps in
how the program delivers the intervention.
Evaluators then must decide whether to interview members
of the target population or program participants. If interviews
are conducted, participants should be asked what they think
the program does and how they would assess the services
received. This information is invaluable in assessing the
success of the program, identifying problems in its implementation,
and improving the delivery of services in the future.
Examine the Data. Evaluators should then examine
data systems to identify what kind of data are available;
whether it is complete; whether routine reports are produced;
and what specific input, process, and outcome measures the
data support. Do the data systems follow participants over
time, and if so, do the records allow evaluators to identify
services delivered to each individual?
Evaluators need data systems that are organized, complete,
and current—or else be prepared to spend considerable
time and resources collecting data and implementing quality
Select Evaluation Design. Using the information
gathered during the screening and site visit, evaluators
must then determine the best evaluation design. The answers
to a few key questions will aid in that decision:
- Are there enough participants so
evaluators can make random assignments to test and control
- If there are not enough participants,
can the evaluator find a highly comparable group (with
similar demographics, risk factors, and so forth) that
does not receive services?
- How large would program and comparison
samples be after the intended period of observation?
- What services would a control or comparison sample receive?
Finalizing the Assessment Recommendation
At the conclusion of the assessment process, evaluators
write a report that recommends whether the program should
be evaluated. The reports typically contain all the information
collected, including sample data forms and program brochures,
and discuss the ramifications of various design options.
Evaluability assessments not only guide decisions about
which programs are good candidates for an outcome evaluation,
they also help evaluators develop the research design and
estimate the cost. Assessments also initiate and foster
relationships that will prove helpful when evaluations reach
rocky points and negotiations become necessary.
This process has worked well for NIJ. State and local agencies
can achieve a similar level of success and minimize evaluation
risks by following NIJ’s approach to evaluability
 NIJ doesn’t limit its assessments to those programs
most likely to succeed. Sister agencies in the Office of
Justice Programs occasionally develop programs in high priority
areas where problems are just emerging. These programs need
to evolve and stabilize before they are ready for a formal
evaluation. For these types of programs, evaluability assessments
have helped NIJ pinpoint which areas require development
and commission a formative evaluation—one that provides
constructive feedback to both the program and the program
office and that suggests improvements.