News and Comment

Handle with care: a case study in using baseline and follow up surveys

Monday 15 August 2016

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The new orthodoxy

Baseline and follow up methodologies have become the new orthodoxy when assessing the impact of interventions on programme participants – particularly when evaluating programmes with children and young people. In a context where experimental approaches are rarely seen as workable or even ethical, collecting baseline and follow up data is increasingly the default option expected by funders and commissioners. They are also relatively cheap to deliver – which, in current times – is appealing.

The evaluator will typically convert a programme’s anticipated outcomes into a set of indicators, use these to form the basis of a survey, and then invite participants to complete the survey at the start and end of the programme. They then hope for the best, based on an assumption that the programme will see a positive shift against the indicators over the course of the intervention.

However, when the results come back there are not always neat improvements in the follow-up. This is where disappointment and panic can set in. A surface level analysis of the data might suggest that the programme has had no – or indeed had a negative – impact on participants. This is not good for busy practitioners who are juggling delivery with the pressure of proving the impact of their work, particularly when they rely on good outcomes for future funding!

Drawing on our recent experience of evaluating a range of complex social interventions, while baseline and follow-up approaches are not necessarily the wrong tool for the job the results need to be carefully interpreted and contextualised and – where possible – cross-checked against other strands of evidence. Only then can you begin to draw out some sensible conclusions about the impact that might have been achieved.

A case study: evaluating Body & Soul Beyond Boundaries programme

We recently conducted an impact evaluation of Beyond Boundaries, an innovative peer mentoring programme for HIV charity Body & Soul. This used a baseline and follow up survey against key indicators. When the results came in there was a positive progression against the majority of the indicators. Young people who had been on the programme were more likely to communicate openly and honestly about their health and their HIV status by the end of the programme. However respondents responded less positively to some wellbeing indicators around self-respect and general state of happiness.

It would have been easy to assume that the programme had had little impact on these areas of wellbeing. However, further scrutinising of the different strands of data allowed us to develop an alternative analysis.

1) Beyond Boundaries did not operate in isolation from other factors that influenced participants’ lives. Programme staff emphasised that the particular cohort they are working with led very chaotic lives and tend to experience a myriad of socioeconomic issues. Here it could be reasonably argued that their participation in the programme may have been helping them to maintain a certain level of wellbeing, and possibly even prevented a more severe decline against these indicators.

2) As a consequence of receiving support and building trust with the service, there are examples where participants increased their emotional literacy and become more willing and able to answer openly and honestly about how they feel. This could explain how they became more able to appraise their personal sense of wellbeing in a more critical way. This finding is consistent with wider evidence that suggests that young people in particular are likely to overstate their levels of wellbeing at baseline and then provide more open and critical score in the follow up.

A further challenge was that, for a whole host of reasons, there was a high rate of attrition between participants completing the baseline and the follow up. This meant that the survey data in isolation did not produce a robust understanding of the impact of the programme. However, when this data was taken in combination with other strands of the evaluation it was possible to make stronger claims about the impact. Triangulating the findings from the baseline and follow up survey with case study and focus group data also allowed us to better understand participant’s journeys and to explore the impact of the programme on the most vulnerable and hard to reach participants, who are often the least willing to take part in evaluation activities.

Focus on why and how, not before and after

Collecting detailed qualitative feedback from programme staff and participants helped us to explore those crucial “why?” and the “how?” questions which helped to shed light on the pathways to outcomes. This was crucial when exploring the impact of a complex service used by participants who have equally complex lives.