Indicators are measureable information used to determine if a program is implementing their program as expected and achieving their outcomes. Not only can indicators help understand what happened or changed, but can also help you to ask further questions about how these changes happened.
The choice of indicators will often inform the rest of the evaluation plan, including evaluation methods, data analysis, and reporting. Strong indicators can be quantitative or qualitative, and are part of the evaluation plan. In evaluation, the indicators should be reviewed and used for program improvement throughout the program’s life cycle.
Indicators can relate to any part of the program and its logic model or program description. Here are three big and most common categories of indicators.
- Input indicators measure the contributions necessary to enable the program to be implemented (e.g., funding, staff, key partners, infrastructure).
- Process indicators measure the program’s activities and outputs (direct products/deliverables of the activities). Together, measures of activities and outputs indicate whether the program is being implemented as planned. Many people use output indicators as their process indicators; that is, the production of strong outputs is the sign that the program’s activities have been implemented correctly. Others may collect measures of the activities and separate output measures of the products/deliverables produced by those activities. Regardless of how you slice the process indicators, if they show the activities are not being implemented with fidelity, then the program risks not being able to achieve the intended outcomes.
- Outcome indicators measure whether the program is achieving the expected effects/changes in the short, intermediate, and long term. Some programs refer to their longest-term/most distal outcome indicators as impact indicators. Because outcome indicators measure the changes that occur over time, indicators should be measured at least at baseline (before the program/project begins) and at the end of the project. Long-term outcomes are often difficult to measure and attribute to a single program. However, that does not mean a program should not try to determine how they are contributing to the health impact of interest (e.g., decrease in morbidity related to particular health issue).
When selecting indicators, programs should keep in mind that some indicators will be more time-consuming and costly than others to collect and analyze. You should consider using existing data sources if possible (e.g., census, existing surveys, surveillance) and if not available then factor in the burden needed to collect each indicator before requiring collection.
Strong indicators are simple, precise, and measurable. In addition, some programs aspire to indicators that are ‘SMART’: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
Some CDC-related Resources for Developing Indicators
- Criteria for Selection of High-Performing Indicators: A Checklist to Inform Monitoring and Evaluation: Designed to help those responsible for monitoring and evaluation identify high-performing, resource-efficient indicators in collaboration with stakeholders.
- CDC Evaluation Coffee Break: Using Indicators: How to Make Indicators Work for You: Slides from presentation by staff at CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke prevention.
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