“Did it work?” I probably use that phrase several times a day. This morning, my stove didn’t light so my roommate tried cleaning the burners; I heard clicking and some frustrated muttering from downstairs. “Did it work?” I called. No dice. Program evaluation sounds like an official and complicated process. But it is really just a fancy way of asking, “Did it work?”
Strategic Habitat Conservation: “Did it work?” Service-style
Evaluation is happening in the Service -- you may even be doing it yourself. Let’s say you work at a refuge in the Northeast Region. Invasive species are a constant, seemingly never-ending battle for you. Staying one step ahead of these species requires creativity and patience. You have to try a treatment, wait, and then, with bated breath, ask, “Did it work? Are they gone?” We always want to know whether our efforts worked because, if they didn’t, we have to change course and try again. This is a key part of adaptive management or, in Service language, Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC). Eventually, through informed experimentation, monitoring, and evaluation, we’ll get it right and it will work.
The $64,000 Question
We must also apply this evaluative thinking and adaptive management approach to our Urban Wildlife Conservation Program efforts. The Urban Wildlife Conservation Program aims to engage residents in urban areas in environmental conservation and outdoor recreation in order to build a constituency who understand the Service and act as environmental stewards in their community. This is an ambitious goal! Already, Service staff across the country are partnering with local communities to broaden exposure to the natural world and build comfort in and appreciation of the outdoors. Sounds great, right? But is it working? This is indeed the $64,000 question.
Our survey says…
Anecdotally, we’d like to think the Urban Program is working. An example is the Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership between the Service and the Providence, RI Parks Department to provide programming and habitat restoration assistance to the city of Providence. The Providence Parks Urban Partnership runs after-school programs for low-income youth in the city of Providence; it introduces youth to the wonders of the outdoors in their neighborhoods. Youth explore the small city parks nearby to discover squirrels, pollinators and robins. One young man who participated in this program enjoyed it so much he decided to lead an impromptu nature walk with the kids in his affordable housing community. They walk around their city, spotting wildlife and trying to identify the birds they see. This walk has become a regular occurrence.
The Standards of Excellence define excellence for partnering with urban communities. Evaluation will help ensure excellence is achieved. This starts with documenting what Service staff and partners are doing to connect urban residents with the outdoors. This is the “it” in “did it work?” What is it that we are doing to meet the Standard of Excellence? Tools developed for Urban Refuges, key partners, and Urban Partnerships aim to document this information and assess our progress in taking action.But anecdotes do not prove success. To that end, I have been part of a team of Service staff and partners who have been working with program evaluation experts to develop the tools needed to rigorously assess program impacts in urban communities.
The next step is to develop a set of tools that connect what we’re doing to measurable community impacts. Through surveys of program participants and refuge visitors, we aim to determine whether our programming is helping to build a connection to the outdoors, comfort in nature, and positive attitudes towards conservation and wildlife.
The beauty of these tools is that they will enable Service staff to more effectively and efficiently engage with their urban constituents. They will also help headquarters staff identify common challenges in the field, which will better equip them to support the field with implementing the Urban Program. Furthermore, armed with information about effectiveness, the Service will be well positioned to share stories of success!
In case you were worried, we fixed the stove. All it took was a little research (there are so many blogs that tell you how to fix gas stoves!) and a few “experiments.” And after each attempt, we always asked, “Did it work?,” taking what we learned to adjust our approach until we reached our goal: cooking breakfast!