No. 1, January 2006
TOOLS & TECHNIQUES
Steps to a HealthierUS
Cooperative Agreement Program: Foundational Elements for Program Evaluation Planning, Implementation, and Use of Findings
Goldie MacDonald, PhD, Danyael Garcia, MPH, Stephanie Zaza, MD, MPH, Michael
Schooley, MPH, Don Compton, PhD, Terry Bryant, MS, Lulu Bagnol, MPH, CHES, Cathy
Edgerly, Rick Haverkate, MPH
Suggested citation for this article: MacDonald G, Garcia D, Zaza S,
Schooley M, Compton D, Bryant T, et al. Steps to a HealthierUS Cooperative
Agreement Program: foundational elements for program evaluation planning,
implementation, and use of findings. Prev Chronic Dis [serial online] 2006 Jan [date
cited]. Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2006/
The Steps to a HealthierUS Cooperative Agreement Program (Steps Program)
enables funded communities to implement chronic disease prevention and health
promotion efforts to reduce the burden of diabetes, obesity, asthma, and related
risk factors. At both the national and community levels, investment in
surveillance and program evaluation is substantial. Public health practitioners
engaged in program evaluation planning often identify desired outcomes, related
indicators, and data collection methods but may pay only limited attention to an
overarching vision for program evaluation among participating sites.
We developed a set of foundational elements to provide a vision of
program evaluation that informs the technical decisions made throughout the
process. Given the diversity of activities across the Steps Program and
the need for coordination between national- and community-level evaluation
efforts, our recommendations to guide program evaluation practice are
explicit yet leave room for site-specific context and needs. Staff across the Steps Program must
consider these foundational elements to prepare a formal plan for program
evaluation. Attention to each element moves the Steps Program closer to
well-designed and complementary plans for program evaluation at the national,
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The Steps to a HealthierUS Cooperative Agreement
The Steps to a HealthierUS Cooperative Agreement Program (Steps Program)
enables funded communities to implement chronic disease prevention and health
promotion efforts to reduce the burden of diabetes, obesity, asthma, and related
risk factors — physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and tobacco use. The Steps
Program funds communities in three categories: state-coordinated small cities or
rural areas, large cities or urban areas, and tribes or tribal entities. In
fiscal year 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) distributed
$13.6 million to 12 programs representing 24 communities (7 large cities, 1
tribe, and 4 states coordinating awards to 16 small cities and rural
communities). In fiscal year 2004, HHS distributed $35.8 million to increase
support to existing communities and fund an additional 10 programs representing
16 communities (5 large cities, 2 tribes, and 3 states coordinating awards to 9
small cities and rural communities). To date, the Steps Program includes 40
In addition to fiscal resources, HHS provides oversight and technical
expertise to support evidence-based program planning and implementation,
disease and risk factor surveillance, and program evaluation. The allocation of resources to
surveillance and evaluation meets the recommended 10% of total program dollars
in the majority of funded communities (1,2). Disease and risk factor
surveillance is an important source of information for program planning and
evaluation at both the national and community levels. Thus, funded
communities participate annually in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance
System (BRFSS) and biennially in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS).
Thus, program evaluation builds upon surveillance data and includes
community-specific efforts to assess program implementation and progress at individual
sites. All funded communities participate in coordinated national-level
evaluation activities that focus on the Steps Program as a whole. The purpose of national-level program evaluation
activities includes the following: assessing the merit or
worth of the Steps Program or key efforts; documenting program processes; determining
progress toward intended outcomes; demonstrating accountability to diverse
stakeholders; and identifying opportunities for ongoing program development and
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Foundational Elements for Program Evaluation
Planning, Implementation, and Use of Findings
Public health practitioners engaged in program evaluation planning often
identify a stream of program outcomes, related indicators, and data collection
methods but may pay only limited attention to developing an overarching vision for
program evaluation among participating sites. Because of the need for
coordination between national and community-level evaluation efforts, recommendations to guide program evaluation practice
must be explicit;
however, they must also be flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of
programmatic activities and community-specific needs. It is important to remember that “the term evaluation does not
imply a particular type of a study design” (3); the elements described here provide a vision of program evaluation
the technical decisions made throughout the evaluation process (e.g.,
identification of indicators and data collection methods).
We have developed a set of foundational elements for program evaluation
planning, implementation, and use of findings to clarify
expectations for national and community-specific practice. For the Steps
elements include the following: 1) distinguish between research and program
evaluation; 2) define program evaluation; 3) use the Framework for Program
Evaluation in Public Health to inform evaluation planning; 4) seek cultural
competence throughout the evaluation process; 5) prepare a program logic model as a
platform for evaluation planning, implementation, and use of findings; 6) identify
the purposes of the evaluation; 7) identify intended users and uses of the
evaluation; 8) identify key evaluation questions; 9) attend to process and outcome
evaluation; and 10) maximize the use of existing surveillance systems for outcome
measurement. For the Steps Program, considering these foundational elements is necessary to prepare a formal
plan for program evaluation. The Table
summarizes the elements and
provides a list of resources to clarify practice. Attention to each element moves the Steps Program
closer to well-designed and complementary plans for program evaluation at the
national, state, and community levels.
1. Distinguish between research and program evaluation.
A key misunderstanding about program evaluation is that it must follow an
academic or epidemiologic research model. For community-based public health
programs, this model is typically difficult to implement, if not impossible or
inappropriate. Although often considered the “gold standard” for public health
research, the “use of randomized control trials to evaluate health promotion
initiatives is, in most cases, inappropriate, misleading and unnecessarily
expensive” (2). Research and program evaluation differ in purpose and practice
critical dimensions: planning, decision making, standards, questions, design,
data collection, analysis and synthesis, judgments, conclusions, and uses (5).
See MacDonald et al for an explanation of these differences (5). The
differences between research and program evaluation demonstrate the
need to consider a wider range of options in evaluation design. Moreover, familiarity
among stakeholders with how research and program evaluation differ provides a
common vocabulary for discussing and understanding program evaluation. An
appropriate approach to the evaluation of community-based programs includes
consideration of a wide range of quantitative and qualitative data collection
methods in conjunction with relevant standards for program evaluation practice.
2. Define program evaluation.
Definitions of program evaluation vary by field of practice and approach.
However, they typically include some reference to the “systematic investigation
of the worth or merit of an object” (24). For the Steps Program,
program evaluation is defined as “the systematic collection of information about
the activities, characteristics, and outcomes of programs to make judgments
about the program, improve program effectiveness, and/or inform decisions about
future program development” (6). The definition includes assessment of program
planning, implementation, and intended outcomes. Moreover, evaluation findings
provide practice-based evidence for decision making and ongoing program
development or improvement. Because the Steps Program is time-bound, the use of evaluation
findings during the program is a priority for many stakeholders.
3. Use the Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health to inform
The Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health (Framework) is a practical, nonprescriptive tool designed to summarize and organize essential elements of
program evaluation. The document (available from www.cdc.gov/eval/framework.htm)
recommends the following six steps for program evaluation: 1) engage
stakeholders, 2) describe the program, 3) focus the evaluation design, 4) gather credible
evidence, 5) justify conclusions, and 6) ensure use and share lessons learned (8).
Each step includes subpoints that describe issues to consider when creating an
evaluation plan (8). Another element of
the Framework is a set of 30 standards for assessing the quality of evaluation
activities, organized into four categories: utility, feasibility, propriety, and
accuracy. Adhering to the steps and standards improves how public health
practitioners conceive and conduct evaluation efforts.
The Framework emphasizes the importance of constructing practical
evaluation strategies that involve diverse program stakeholders, not just
evaluation experts. For the Steps Program, attention to stakeholder roles
throughout the process helps to ensure a participatory approach to program
evaluation at the national, state, and community levels. Program evaluation is presented
as ongoing and iterative, each step in the process informing the next; this
approach is well suited to the context and complexity of community-based
programs. Although the Framework provides a systematic process for
program evaluation planning, it does not include all of the details of
a formal plan. As such, the substance of the plan requires additional discussion
and decision making with program stakeholders and staff.
Steps to a Healthier New York, which includes programs in Broome, Chautauqua,
Jefferson, and Rockland counties, offers an example of stakeholder involvement.
The New York State Department of Health coordinates program evaluation
activities with staff in each of these communities. The group employs the
Framework to plan and implement data collection intended to document
program implementation and outcomes and identify opportunities for immediate and
ongoing program improvement. The participation of national, state, and local
stakeholders is the cornerstone of their approach. Stakeholder participation
includes assessment of the composition of local consortia
to ensure appropriate representation of varied stakeholders; regular site visits
and assorted information-exchange opportunities; and formal agreements with
local academic and health care institutions and others. Stakeholders in each of
the communities provide knowledge of community context and characteristics to
better frame programmatic, evaluation, and surveillance activities, resulting in
an authentic definition of the program from a community perspective. Staff used
this community-based definition to identify both evidence-based interventions
and measurement strategies to meet local needs.
The evaluation design for Steps to a Healthier New York rests
on the following four pillars defined by staff and stakeholders: 1) disease and risk factor
surveillance via the BRFSS and YRBSS; 2) systematic program monitoring to assess
implementation and early outcomes; 3) assessment of longer-term outcomes at
the community level; and 4) strategic coordination with national-level evaluation
activities. Stakeholders prioritized evaluation questions on
the path to a complete evaluation and implementation plan based on these
pillars. Thus, systems are in place to provide a steady
stream of credible information for each community. The constant exchange of
information among these communities led to practical and
cost-effective methods for demonstrating progress toward program goals, identifying
opportunities for program improvement, and sharing lessons learned to enhance
chronic disease prevention and health promotion efforts statewide. For this
program, the six steps and related standards have proven to be an effective
approach to better integrating disease and risk factor surveillance, program,
and evaluation planning with an emphasis on stakeholder participation across
four distinct communities in New York.
4. Seek cultural competence in program evaluation planning, implementation, and
use of findings.
Cultural competence in program evaluation practice is a theme
throughout the Framework.
However, the authors do not explicitly define cultural competence. As a starting point
for practice across the Steps Program, cultural competence in program evaluation
“involves a set of academic or interpersonal skills that allow individuals to
increase their understanding and appreciation of cultural differences and
similarities within, among, and between groups” (25). To demonstrate cultural
competence, the public health practitioner must draw on community-based values,
traditions, and customs and work with knowledgeable individuals from the
community to develop focused interventions and communications (25). “Successful
identification of stakeholders’ values and interests is the bedrock of
cultural competence in evaluation” (26).
To achieve cultural competence, program evaluation must be responsive to
cultural context, use appropriate frameworks and methodology, and rely on “stakeholder-generated,
interpretive means to arrive at the results and further use of findings” (11).
To illustrate, Steps to a Healthier Anishinaabe spans 38 Michigan counties and serves the
Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Bands of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Hannahville Indian Community, Huron Potawatomi Indian Community, Keweenaw Bay
Indian Community, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, Saginaw Chippewa
Indian Tribe, and Sault Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The geographic
distribution of participants across the state and stakeholder concerns about
participation in the BRFSS resulted in development of an approach to disease and risk factor surveillance driven by community values.
The conventional approach to sampling for participation in the BRFSS was
impractical for this program. Steps to a Healthier Anishinaabe includes
sovereign tribes, each with a unique infrastructure. American Indian households can be
difficult to identify for the purposes of creating a typical sampling frame. The
release of enrollment data requires approval at the highest levels of tribal
government, and many stakeholders consider distribution of this information
counter to community values and priorities. As such, Michigan’s
Behavioral Risk Factor Survey does not already oversample this population.
In collaboration with each of the listed tribes listed, and with support from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Steps Program Office (SPO)
and Division of Adult and Community Health, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan (ITCM) developed a
culturally appropriate strategy for participation in the BRFSS. The approach
draws on localized definitions of culturally competent practice and related
ethics to meet the information needs of decision makers at the national level
and among tribes involved. For the majority of these tribes, inclusion in the sampling
frame was actively voluntary. Tribal members submitted their phone numbers
via boxes at each site. Tribes offered modest incentives for participation. The approach
resulted in approximately 7800 phone numbers. The ITCM provided these
numbers, without identifiers, for sampling and data collection.
In this community, ongoing dialogue, respect for tribal values, and
flexibility resulted in full participation in the data collection requirements
of the Steps Program. Stakeholders at the national and community levels
maximized an opportunity to improve surveillance and evaluation practice and
ensure culturally competent service (i.e., data collection) to tribal members.
Although cultural competence may look different at the national and community
levels and vary in concept and practice across the Steps Program, it is
critical to the ultimate usefulness of an evaluation. Appropriate attention to
cultural competence throughout the evaluation process reflects and affirms
principles, ethics, and standards for program evaluation in public
health. Moreover, it ensures a consequential role for diverse program
stakeholders and compels greater use of the evaluation for decision making.
5. Prepare a program logic model as a platform for evaluation of planning,
implementation, and use of findings.
A logic model is a picture of a program that shows the relationships among
resources, activities, and the benefits, or changes, that result over time (16).
Often referred to as theory of change (16), program theory (27),
or theory of action (6), the graphic presentation is a “plausible,
sensible model of how a program is supposed to work” (28). Specifically,
“a theory of change is a description of how and why a set of activities — be
they part of a highly focused program or a comprehensive initiative — are
expected to lead to early, intermediate and longer term outcomes over a
specified period” (16). Attention to and presentation of program theory is the
distinguishing characteristic of a program logic model.
A basic logic model includes inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes
(short-term, intermediate, and long-term). Inputs include program resources
(e.g., human and fiscal resources, organizational capacities, existing
infrastructure). Outputs are the direct products of program activities (e.g.,
programs or services delivered, number of people served, work completed). Outcomes are
the results, effects, or benefits of public health programs; they are the
changes that occur for individuals, groups, families, households, organizations,
or communities during or after the program (e.g., changes in behavior, norms,
knowledge, attitudes, policy, capacities, and conditions). It is important to
understand the difference between outputs and outcomes. Outputs relate to
“what we do” as public health practitioners, and outcomes refer to
“what difference is there” because of these efforts (16). Sound evidence (e.g., public health research, intervention science,
practice-based knowledge) clarifies the relationships among the components of a logic
model. However, the evidence base for programs may not be well
developed or easily accessible. As such, discussions of program theory should
include an appraisal of a broad range of sources of evidence to link program
inputs with activities and outcomes. Furthermore, an evaluability assessment
checks “whether or not a program is logically theorized, planned, and
resourced” with the aim of avoiding investment in a program that was poorly designed (3). A well-designed logic model
provides a platform for program and evaluation planning, program management,
ongoing program development, and strategic communications.
6. Identify the purpose of the evaluation.
The purpose of the evaluation differs from the purpose of the program;
articulating the purpose of the evaluation will “prevent premature decision
making regarding how the evaluation should be conducted” (8). Program
evaluation has at least four general purposes: 1) gain insight (e.g., document or
assess an innovative approach to practice); 2) change practice (e.g., improve
operations, refine program strategy, improve quality or efficiency); 3) assess
effects (e.g., document program outcomes, intended and unintended); and 4) affect
participants (e.g., serve as a catalyst for self-directed change among stakeholders,
spur staff development, contribute to organizational change) (8). Moreover,
the definition and pursuit of clear, appropriate purposes of the evaluation
contributes to institutionalizing program evaluation within an organization
An explicit statement of the purpose of the evaluation adds clarity and focus
to the study and enhances usability among stakeholders with limited knowledge of
program evaluation. With the purposes of the evaluation agreed upon, subsequent
pieces of the study fall into place more easily (e.g., allocation of resources,
identification of key evaluation questions, selection of appropriate sources
of data). Stakeholders in the Steps Program delineated the following purposes of
the national evaluation early in the planning process: assess the merit or worth
of the Steps Program or key efforts; document program processes and progress
toward intended outcomes; identify opportunities for ongoing program
improvement; demonstrate accountability for resources to key stakeholders; and
identify opportunities for ongoing program development and improvement.
7. Identify the intended users and uses of the evaluation.
The goal of utilization-focused evaluation is intended use by primary
intended users (18). Primary users of the evaluation include
stakeholders who are in a position to do or decide something about the program
(8). Frequent interaction with primary users early in the evaluation process
increases the likelihood that the evaluation will satisfy their information needs (6). “Use” refers to the application of information
generated from the evaluation. However, lessons learned in the course of an
evaluation do not automatically translate into decision making and action.
Ongoing use of evaluation findings involves strategic thinking and continued
vigilance from the earliest stages of stakeholder participation (8). All uses
must be linked to one or more specific users to ensure that program resources
are allocated to meet priority information needs. Explicit
attention to intended use helps practitioners avoid “measurement mania”
because only data that will be used for a specific purpose are collected.
8. Identify key evaluation questions.
The key to designing an evaluation that best meets stakeholder needs is precisely
defining the questions that the study is expected to answer (30). Evaluation questions form the
heart of the evaluation plan and pragmatic decisions about design and data
collection methods. Evaluation questions stem from a shared understanding of the
program's logic model and the defined purpose, users, and uses of an
evaluation. Specific questions establish practical boundaries for the evaluation
by defining exactly the facets of the program that will be addressed
(6,18,27,31). Prioritizing questions among stakeholders further refines a focus for the evaluation and informs
every one of the technical decisions to follow (e.g.,
identification of indicators, data collection methods, instrument design).
Often, evaluation questions are implicitly understood by program staff and
consultants closest to the study and therefore are not included as an explicit
component of the evaluation plan. However, a participatory approach to
evaluation requires stakeholder involvement in the identification of evaluation
questions. For the Steps Program, individuals responsible for program evaluation at the national,
community levels are encouraged to discuss, prioritize, and
articulate key evaluation questions to ensure that evaluation practice and
products are meaningful to all stakeholders.
9. Attend to process and outcome evaluation.
Public health programs should be evaluated in terms of their processes and
outcomes. While outcome evaluation is used to assess whether a program
works, it cannot typically demonstrate why or how the program works (or does not
work). Knowledge of why or how a program creates change is as relevant in
public health programs as information about whether a desired change
occurred (2). Process evaluation is the systematic collection of information to
document and assess program implementation and operations (5). This type of
evaluation involves documentation and description of program activities — what, how
much, for whom, when, and by whom (32). For example, process evaluation
can be used to document the allocation and use of resources; assess recruitment,
reach, or participation; determine “dose” delivered and received; and
measure program fidelity (i.e., the extent to which the intervention was
delivered as planned, quality of the intervention, and integrity of implementation) (20).
For example, Boston Steps includes programmatic activities in seven
neighborhoods: Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roxbury, South
Boston, and South End/Chinatown. A cornerstone of the program, NeighborWalk, is
an evidence-based community walking initiative. The Boston Public Health
Commission, in collaboration with the Harvard Prevention Research Center, uses
three tools to document implementation and participation. One, to document community
participation in the program, walk coordinators citywide submit a weekly summary
of activities (e.g., number of participants, steps walked as recorded on
pedometers, duration of walks). Two, NeighborWalk participants
volunteer to complete enrollment and exit questionnaires that capture
demographic information about themselves and their relevant health-related
behaviors. Three, walk coordinators complete brief narratives to document and
describe perceived successes, barriers, and practical suggestions to improve NeighborWalk before the next cycle of activities. Each of the tools offers
unique data for program monitoring and informed decision making (e.g.,
allocation of resources). This investment in process evaluation allows staff to
quickly assess whether the program is reaching its intended audience,
describe actual characteristics of the program in diverse neighborhoods, and
identify improved pathways to influence health-related behaviors in these
The definition and application of “process,” “outcome,” and “impact”
evaluation vary in public health and beyond. PRECEDE–PROCEED, a prominent model
for program planning, implementation, and evaluation in public health, positions
impact evaluation to measure short-term effects defined as knowledge, skills,
and behavior. Outcome evaluation measures health or quality of life (33). Yet,
in many settings, impact evaluation refers to assessment of the most distal
outcomes. To establish a common vocabulary and comparable practice for the Steps Program, outcome evaluation
has been defined as the systematic collection
of information about the results, effects, or benefits (intended and unintended)
of programs during or after participation. To capture a range of outcomes as the
Steps Program matures, program evaluation at the national and community levels
includes both outcome and impact measurement through identification of short-term,
intermediate, and long-term outcomes. Thus, for the purposes of common
vocabulary and clarity, we do not reference impact evaluation from this point
10. Maximize use of existing surveillance systems for outcome measurement.
Surveillance is the “ongoing, systematic collection, analysis, and
interpretation of outcome-specific data for use in planning, implementing, and
evaluating public health practice” (34). Monitoring of disease or risk factors
through surveillance is a necessary component of comprehensive public health
programs (34). In a climate of increased accountability for limited resources,
programs realize certain efficiencies by using existing surveillance data for
evaluation purposes (e.g., measuring progress toward intended outcomes). The use
of these data greatly enhances consistency in measurement and comparability
The release of Indicators for Chronic Disease Surveillance (22) provides a
comprehensive and recommended set of measures for chronic disease
prevention and health promotion programs. The Steps Program uses relevant
indicators to document progress toward intended outcomes; data sources for these
indicators include BRFSS and YRBSS. Both surveillance systems can be used to
determine the prevalence of health risk behaviors; assess whether health risk
behaviors increase, decrease, or stay the same over time; examine the
co-occurrence of health risk behaviors; provide comparable national, state, and
local data; and monitor progress toward achieving the Healthy People 2010
objectives and specific program outcomes. Whenever possible, the Steps Program uses
data from these sources for national- and community-level program planning and
For example, Steps to a Healthier Colorado includes programs in Mesa, Pueblo,
Teller, and Weld counties. The Colorado Department of Public Health and
Environment coordinates surveillance and evaluation activities with staff in
each of these communities. Program staff identified outcomes for measurement
from three primary sources: Healthy People 2010, Indicators for Chronic
Disease Surveillance, and community-specific selections drawn from local stakeholder
priorities and needs. Steps to a Healthier Colorado enhanced existing
surveillance systems to collect data in funded communities and ensure quality information to assess progress toward short-term, intermediate,
and long-term outcomes. The BRFSS includes adults aged 18 years and older, the
YRBSS includes youth in grades 9 through 12, and the state-based Child Health
Survey includes children aged 1 to 14 years. These surveys provide data for both
strategic program planning and the tracking of progress toward desired health
outcomes. To maximize use for program evaluation, staff enhanced each survey to
include additional short-term and intermediate measures relevant
to community-based programming and objectives.
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Monitoring and evaluation are included among essential public health
services as important components of efforts to promote continuous quality
improvement of public health systems and related programs. The information
presented here makes visible the overarching direction of evaluation practice
across the Steps Program, including attention to the intended use of
findings for accountability and continued program development. Foundational
elements for program evaluation planning, implementation, and use of findings
highlighted here illustrate the commitment of the Steps Program to improving
public health, not only through service to communities but also through careful and
appropriate documentation of program implementation and outcomes to provide
practice-based evidence for decision making now and in the future.
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The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Tom Melnik, Angie
Cradock, Anne McHugh, Rachel Oys, Martha Engstrom, Patricia Rieker, Rodney
Hopson, Elizabeth Martin, Tom Chapel, Barbara Bichelmeyer, Fred Ramsey, Jennifer
Weissman, Sally Honeycutt, Alyssa Easton, and Jessica Shisler.
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Corresponding Author: Goldie MacDonald, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, 4770 Buford Hwy NE, Mail Stop K-93, Atlanta, GA 30341.
Telephone: 770-488-5534. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Affiliations: Danyael Garcia, MPH, Stephanie Zaza, MD, MPH, Michael
Schooley, MPH, Don Compton, PhD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
Atlanta, Ga; Terry Bryant, MS, Colorado Department of Public Health and
Environment, Denver, Colo; Lulu Bagnol, MPH, CHES, Cathy Edgerly, Rick Haverkate,
MPH, Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, Sault Ste Marie, Mich.
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