Searching for public value-level impacts
An Extension program creates public value when its positive impact extends beyond the program participants to the greater community. Documenting that a program has created public value, therefore, requires measuring system- or community-level impacts. How often do evaluation studies measure the kinds of impacts that can be classified as public value? In an article in the most recent (April 2012) Journal of Extension, Jeffrey Workman and Scott Scheer try to answer that question. The article, titled "Evidence of Impact: Examination of Evaluation Studies Published in the Journal of Extension," examines program evaluations published in JOE to determine the levels of impact they reached. They considered two impact hierarchies. In Bennett's Hierarchy (from "Up the hierarchy," by C. Bennett in the March 1975 JOE) the highest of seven levels is "end results," which would include such community-level impacts as a stronger economy or improved environmental conditions. In the Logic Model, these kinds of changes in social, economic, civic, and environmental conditions are called "long-term outcomes." Workman and Scheer found that about 5.6 percent of the studies they surveyed reported impacts at these levels.
The authors conclude that "more higher-level evidence of impact is needed." They write that Extension's "ultimate goal is to remain relevant and of value to the public. The strongest method to demonstrate relevancy and public value is to document "true impact" (end results/long-term outcomes)."
Do the authors' findings ring true for you? Are only a small percentage of programs able to demonstrate public value-level impacts? Is it because few programs are achieving that level of impact? Or because the resources have not been available to measure programs' long-term impacts?