Internal Eval TIG Week: Internal Evaluation as a Catalyst for Cross-Program Collaboration by Amber Kraft, Melissa Schwarz, and Lindsay Zeman

Hi everyone, we are Amber Kraft, Melissa Schwarz, and Lindsay Zeman. We are internal evaluators at Access Community Health Network (ACCESS) in Chicago, IL. In Fall 2020, we completed an evaluation project to help program managers at ACCESS learn how the pandemic had impacted their programs. This was the first time an evaluation activity had been standardized across programs and it was so successful that program managers have continued to meet regularly a year after the project concluded. Based on that experience, we’re sharing some tips on how internal evaluators can strengthen collaboration within their organization.

ACCESS is one of the largest networks of federally qualified health centers in the nation. Throughout its history, ACCESS has grown and sustained programs targeting specific patient subpopulations and their unique health needs. Each program has been uniquely shaped by internal and external factors. It’s not unusual for organizations to experience some degree of siloing, particularly when external regulatory or funder requirements exert unique pressures on individual programs.

Hot Tip: Create a shared language

Individual programs may develop their own internal vocabulary over time which is often shaped by past or current funding sources. In group settings, program jargon implies that one program’s activities are completely unrelated to another’s. In reality, the majority of program activities can be broadly categorized into a set of universal activities. In our case, the evaluation team agreed on generic language that fit most programs, then used this language throughout data collection, analysis, and our stakeholder meetings. Hearing these activities described in broader terms helped program managers quickly identify common experiences across programs.

Hot Tip: Present program differences as adaptations

Asking program stakeholders to explore ways their program is similar or different to other programs within the organization can feel risky. Internal evaluators can create a safer environment by reinforcing that, in almost all cases, program differences represent the best possible adaptation to that program’s unique circumstances. Evaluators should approach stakeholders with curiosity about their unique decision-making inputs, not just appraise the final outcomes.

Reviewing the findings, the ACCESS evaluation team helped program managers identify some shared challenges to work on as a group. Each program manager found they had valuable insights, including historical context and relevant organizational relationships, that could be aligned towards a resolution. The cross-program evaluation report and recommendations also attracted more attention and resources than program managers’ previous solo efforts.

Cool Trick: Draw out institutional memory

If one program is facing a challenge that isn’t shared by the group, don’t automatically dismiss it from the shared agenda. Other program leaders may have resolved similar obstacles in the past, even while employed at other organizations. Holding space for these individual challenges validates each program leader’s needs and contributions.

Hot Tip: Identify common stakeholders to advocate for shared needs 

As programs try to independently solve problems in parallel, cross-departmental collaborations can begin to replicate across the organization. External stakeholders may be eager to consolidate these discussions and address programs together using newly established shared language. At ACCESS, the evaluation process helped the program managers describe their needs in a shared language to our information systems (IS) staff. IS staff then consolidated parallel projects into one project that met everyone’s needs. In this way, IS staff helped sustain cross-program collaboration long after its conclusion.

Hot Tip: Actively manage the shared agenda

Sometimes the group has shared all its collective knowledge, weighed the pros and cons of different strategies, and there is no group-level solution. Invite honest conversation among your project stakeholders about action items that should be transitioned off the group agenda so each leader can pursue whatever is right for their program.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Internal Evaluation (IE) Topical Interest Group Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our IE TIG members. 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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