I’m Marti Frank, a researcher and evaluator based in Portland, Oregon. Over the last three years I’ve worked in the energy efficiency and social justice worlds, and it’s given me the opportunity to see how much these fields have to teach one another.
For evaluators working with environmental programs – and energy efficiency in particular – I’ve learned two lessons that will help us do a better job documenting the impacts of environmental programs.
1) A program designed to address an environmental goal – for example, reduce energy use or clean up pollution, will almost always have other, more far reaching impacts. As evaluators, we need to be open to these in order to capture the full range of the program’s benefits.
Example: A weatherization workshop run by Portland non-profit Community Energy Project (where I am on the Board), teaches people how to make simple, inexpensive changes to their home to reduce drafts and air leaks. While the program’s goal is to reduce energy use, participants report many other benefits: more disposable income, reduced need for public assistance, feeling less worried about paying bills, having more time to spend with family.
2) Not all people will be equally impacted by an environmental program, or even impacted in the same way. Further, there may be systematic differences in how, and how much, people are impacted.
Example #1: Energy efficiency programs assign a single value for energy savings, even though the same quantity of savings will mean very different things to different households, depending in large part on their energy burden (or the percent of their income they spend on energy).
Example #2: A California energy efficiency program provided rebates on efficient household appliances, like refrigerators. Although the rebates were available to everyone, the households who redeemed them (and thus benefited from the program) were disproportionately wealthy and college-educated, relative to all Californians.
I’ve found three evaluation approaches to be helpful in identifying unintended impacts of environmental programs.
Outcome harvesting. This evaluation practice encourages us to look for all program outcomes, not just those that were intended. Ricardo Wilson-Grau, who developed it, hosts this site with materials to get you started.
Intersectionality. This conceptual approach originated in feminist theory and reminds us to think about how differing clusters of demographic characteristics influence how we experience the world and perceive benefits of social programs.
Open-ended qualitative interviews. It’s hard to imagine unearthing unexpected outcomes using closed-ended questions. I always enjoy what I learn from asking open-ended questions, giving people plenty of time to respond, and even staying quiet a little too long. And, I’ve yet to find an interviewee who doesn’t come up with another interesting point when asked, “Anything else?”
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