It’s not uncommon for evaluators to be called in at the last minute when a service or project is coming to an end (and running out of money) and being asked to ‘prove that it works’. And preferably by the end of the month please! So you appreciate you’re onto a good thing when you get the chance to work on a large-scale evaluation over an eight year period and you get involved in that work before the service delivery actually starts.
Fulfilling Lives: Supporting people with multiple needs is an investment of up to £110million in 12 areas of England by Big Lottery Fund. The funding is aimed at improving the lives of people with multiple and complex needs – homelessness, reoffending, substance misuse and mental ill health – and bringing about a system change in the way that services are planned and delivered for this group.
It is, by definition, a complex area of work and, inevitably, there are many challenging aspects to evaluating whether it is ultimately a success and constitutes value for money. The evaluation is essentially about understanding what works to improve the lives of people with multiple and complex needs? How does it work, for whom and in what context? How does the system need to change to ensure that individuals can get the support they need, when they need it?
The project aims to help people experiencing multiple and complex needs to lead ‘fulfilling lives’. So part of the challenge is to define what we mean by ‘fulfilling lives’. Whilst the lives of individuals may be complex and chaotic, and the system that serves to help them similarly so, what constitutes a fulfilling life does not need to be equally complex. A suitable place to live and a decent job; loving relationships; good health; and so on. It’s the same things you and I want. So how can we measure the extent to which a particular funding initiative helps people to achieve those things and, at the same time, weigh up the costs for delivering such services against the benefits for all society?
Some will argue the case for a more qualitative approach to measuring the really important things – the life-changingly important things – in an individuals life. A view perhaps best highlighted by the much-used quote from the sociologist William Bruce Cameron;
not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
William Bruce Cameron, 1963
Others will emphasise that most of the things that really matter can be quantified and that to do so is the only meaningful way to demonstrate the value of investing in services for groups such as those with multiple and complex needs. Moreover, we need to be able to compare – quantitatively – what happens in those funded areas with what would have happened anyway (the ‘counterfactual’). Another layer of complexity for this evaluation is that we are also seeking to identify whether the initiative has succeeded in delivering the system change that it set out as a primary aim?
Our challenge as evaluators is to strike the balance between quantitative and qualitative measures; between finding and measuring those things which are common for everyone to live a fulfilling life and finding those things which are unique to just one person but which illuminate their lives and help us to understand how it all fits together.
We need to find the balance in producing formative evaluation over the next eight years which resonates with those commissioning and delivery services, but equally, resonates with those receiving those services and being supported to live a fulfilling life.
We need to balance what can reasonably be collected at the local level with what could more efficiently be collected at the national level.
We need to balance the expertise of evaluators and those delivering services, alongside providing appropriate support so that service users have a genuine, meaningful role in the evaluation process.
Ultimately, this substantial commitment by Big Lottery Fund to improve the lives of individuals with multiple and complex needs over the next eight years presents a fantastic opportunity. It is a fantastic opportunity for the 12 project areas being funded. It is also a fantastic opportunity to find out what really works and measure the true value in improving the lives of this group of people. We recognise our responsibility as evaluators to seize the unique opportunity presented by this initiative and to find the right balance to make it count.