Coalitions Using Data for Evaluation and Planning

February 21, 2012

In my practice I have worked with a number of community based coalitions. These coalitions are usually comprised of community members, human or social service professionals, school personnel, local government representatives and youth. A number of these coalitions have been created to address issues in their community regarding underage substance use, but there is no reason to believe that the lessons learned from these groups would not apply to coalitions focusing on diverse interests such as clean water, safe schools, or arts education.

These coalitions are in an interesting place with respect to gathering and using data. To address grant funding interests they are often asked to evaluate the impacts of their strategies and activities on youth, community members, whole communities, or the environment. Concurrently they are asked, sometimes with little direction and financial support, to identify the right kinds of strategies to address the appropriate concerns in their community. As an example, a local Drug Free Communities coalition is asked to identify the primary concerns regarding youth substance use in their community (e.g., “it is too easy for youth to get alcohol from local stores.”) and then asked to propose and implement an appropriate response to this problem (e.g., compliance checks at liquor retailers).

The concern, though, is that often these decisions are not data-driven or based on empirical evidence. In the recently completed Washington State Strategic Planning Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF-SIG) project I (and other local evaluators) worked with local communities in the development of a theory of change model to describe some of the factors that the community believe contribute to underage substance use problems. In facilitating this exercise with community coalitions it was clear that one “contributor” that consistently emerged was the belief that “community members/adults see youth drinking as a rite of passage (e.g., we all did it as a youth and we are OK).” The implication was that if the coalition could help change this “permissive” norm about use then it could help address the use problems.

But here’s the rub. The original premise was not true. When these communities started to gather data, both anecdotally and via community adult surveys, they found that, in fact, adults and community members do not have such permissive attitudes, and do not carry the view that well this is simply a “rite of passage” for youth. The data did, though, show the importance of other possible contributors to the problem related to other permissive parental attitudes, local community access to substances and parental supervision behaviors.

Some of the coalitions I am currently working with have been very proactive and savvy about gathering data to support their evaluation and planning efforts. The White Swan Community Coalition, situated in the Mt Adams School District, has used a combination of community, youth, school staff and law enforcement surveys to identify important contributing factors in the community and to help formulate appropriate strategies. Since the community is located in the center of the Yakama Reservation there are challenges and uncertainties related to local enforcement and jurisdictional policies and procedures. The data has been helpful to the coalition in thinking about how to best enhance local enforcement efforts, in how to work with the local courts, and in how to advocate for a community Social Host ordinance.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe Chi-E-Chee coalition has a consistent tradition of gathering and using data to support their coalition efforts. The Reservation is small with less than 1000 local residents, but has utilized their own local version of the State Healthy Youth survey with all Tribal middle and high school youth, has used community wide health surveys with local residents, and has conducted community discussions and focus groups to identify issues of concern. These data have supported the coalition’s strategies, have helped in the enactment of new Tribal laws and policies, and have helped a small Tribal community to complete successfully for a number of local and federal grants.

As I noted earlier, the desire to gather and use data for coalition planning and assessment is not unique to the arena of substance use prevention. Local coalitions form and operate in many areas, addressing a wide range of community issues, and often need data to support and enhance their efforts. It would make sense for a coalition that, for example, brings together interested stakeholders to address issues of clean water to consider gathering data from local residents, local policy makers, and local business community in their planning of marketing, advocacy, or collaboration efforts intended to support their cause. Similarly, community crime prevention coalitions might consider gathering local enforcement and crime statistics, or interviewing local law enforcement personnel or policy makers in their attempts to push for new safety policies or procedures.

Feel free to comment on this discussion, pose any questions, or share some of your experiences collecting or using data in coalition planning and assessment efforts. I ask for your name and e-mail to be able to follow-up with you on any questions.

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