Measuring Network Effects in Community Engagement
I wrote this blog post at the beginning of my consulting practice. If I were to take the time to rewrite it I would clarify some points but for now, I did some minor cleanup work. It still has some great points.
At the most basic level all facilitated group processes can and should be measured across the two dimensions of process and outcomes. Process examines the road you took to get to where you wanted to end up, and outcomes measure whether or not you got to your destiny. In one of my early posts to this blog I described some tools for measuring meeting performance that focused on the process. In this post I want to continue to discuss the concept of facilitating community engagement that I began in my last post and specifically discuss the dimension of measuring networks in a community engagement process.
A community engagement process such as developing a coalition or an advisory group typically has the dual purposes of achieving a specific program outcome (such as advocating for funding or policy change) and attempts to build social networks between participants. Coalitions or advisory groups are convened typically because each participant comes with very different perspectives, assets and power with the goal of achieving through collective effort what individuals cannot achieve on their own. By fostering collaboration, it is the classic systems view of the “whole being more than the sum of the parts.” So when a facilitator tracks the progress of the group, in addition to measuring process and outcome, s/he needs to measure the strength of the network. So what does measuring a network look like? I would like to offer three frames that might serve as network measurement.
Measuring Social Networks: The concept of measuring social networks basically identifies the extent and intensity of social relationships among the individuals and organizations in the community engagement process. Using qualitative tools to take “snap shots” of individual and organizational practices over time, this evaluation approach can be used to describe the size and structure of networks, positions, roles and communication and interaction patterns among members. Measuring social networks is a way to estimate the “effect” of the coalition with the assumption that when a network is growing in scope and depth then there is likely a positive network effect being created by the engagement process. There are software tools that can help in measuring social networks and there is a large literature base describing social network measurement. A case study that I have found very useful in illustrating this methodology is a report of the Reclaiming Futures National Program Office (disclaimer: at the time I did development work for this organization but had nothing to do with this evaluation).
Measuring Social Capital: There are many ways of looking at the concept of social capital some of which overlap social network measurement. In this context, I would like to suggest that social capital measurement differs from social network measurement in that social capital is not only interested in the breadth and depth of networks but also considers the power distribution in that network. Some of the best resources on measuring social capital come from the international community and, from all places, the World Bank. Using works like trust, solidarity, collective action, and inclusion, a social capital approach suggests greater attention to the power dynamics of a coalition or advisory group. It asks not only if groups are working together but also asks if there is equity and balance in the power and relationships.
Measuring Entrepreneurial Actions: Back in 1978 I cam across a paper that discussed the concept of measuring entrepreneurial behavior in nonprofit agencies. This paper influenced how I thought about capacity in nonprofit agencies by offering a way to think about measuring the creative force of an organization. I have pondered if there are implications for coalition measurement. In other words, could we use entrepreneurial intent as a marker for measuring coalition strength? Zooming ahead a decade, there is increasing discussion of the concept of “industry clusters” as a regional economic engine (I introduced clusters as a collaboration model in another post). Associated with this economic development theory are emerging models for measuring “regional entrepreneurship capital.” Such measures look at physical capital, cooperation, human capital, knowledge capital and social capital. For coalitions, a measurement framework might identify a collection of indicators related to these “capital” domains, aggregate the indicators for all coalition members, and track those indicators over time. Growth in these indicators would indicate that the coalition “market sector” is growing by leveraging joint actions of members or by expanding the network.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, measuring progress as one facilitates community engagement needs to include an assessment of process and outcomes. Those twin measures are the basis of ethical facilitation practice. However coalitions and advisory groups convened for interdependent long-term action also requires measuring the social network and capital effects of the convening. Unfortunately, network measurements takes additional time, resources and are often beyond a project scope. However, there is a deeper point than lecturing about the need to do an evaluation that often cannot be afforded. The point underscores the premise of the first post, which is that facilitating community engagement requires more than group facilitation skills. In designing community engagement processes, facilitators need to consider the power of convening community partners. That power is inherent in the relationships that can be cultivated by the facilitation process and measured (formally or informally) over time. If this power is ignored or underutilized it can result in a coalition that is weak and ineffective. Conversely, if capitalized on, nurtured and measured, the collective power of the network can expand capacity in ways that no one agency could achieve alone. If a formal network evaluation cannot be an “action,” due to budget or scope constraints, it still must remain a frame of reference for the facilitator. Having a network measurement focus going into a community engagement process distinguishes a community engagement process from mere meeting facilitation.
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