AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

Dec/10

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Brian Yates on Doing Cost-Inclusive Evaluation – Part I: Measuring Costs

Hi! I’m Brian Yates, Professor in the Department of Psychology, and Director of the Program Evaluation Research Laboratory (PERL), at American University in Washington, DC. I’ve also been the AEA Treasurer for the past 3 years, and am looking forward to serving for 3 more.

I’ve included cost as well as outcome measures in my quantitative and qualitative evaluations since the mid-1970s.

Lesson Learned – 1) Costs are not money. Money’s just a way to get access to the resources that make programs work. What matters for programs, and what I measure when I’m evaluating costs, are people’s time — clients’ as well as staff’s, space used, transportation (of clients to and from programs, often) … and not just total time spent working in the program, but the amount of time spent in the different activities that, together, are the program.

Hot Tip: When asking stakeholders about program costs, I make a table listing the major activities of the program (therapy, groups, education, for example) in columns and the major resources used by the program (staff and client time, office space, transportation, for example) in rows. Different stakeholders put the amount of each resource that they use in each activity, and then compare others’ entries with their own. Insights into program operations often ensue!

Lesson Learned – 2) The most valuable resources may not have a price. Many programs rely on volunteered time and donated space and materials: these often don’t come with a monetary price attached. One can assign a monetary value to these resources according to what the same time from the same person would be paid in a job, but the most important thing to measure is the amount of time, the capabilities of the person, and ways they spent their time.

Lesson Learned – 3) When measured only as money, cost findings are instantly obsolete and do not aid replication. Inflation can quickly make specific monetary values for program costs out of date and, all too soon, laughably low. Translating 1980 dollars into 2011 dollars is possible, but still does not inform planners as to what specific resources are needed to replicate a program in another setting.

Lesson Learned – 4) When presenting costs, keep resources in their original units. Yes, time is money … but it comes in units of hours to begin with. Report both, and your audience will learn not just price but what it takes to make the program happen.

Rad Resource: Here’s a free on-line and down-loadable manual I wrote on formative evaluation of not only cost, but also cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit … and not just for substance abuse treatment! http://archives.drugabuse.gov/impcost/IMPCOSTIndex.html

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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