Program Design

I am frequently asked about what I do.  Here are some short answers to common questions that I field.

What is a program?

When organizations set out to make the world a better place, they develop a plan of action.  That plan is a program.

Historically, nonprofit organizations have implemented programs underwritten by foundations and government agencies.  Examples include museums, schools, and social services.  Governmental organizations also implement programs directly.  Education and health are two areas in which government implements programs at the local, state, and federal levels.  Today, a growing number of for-profit corporations are implementing programs to advance their social missions.

Programs are tremendously varied.  They may work with individuals (like an afterschool program) or organizations (like foundations that support afterschool programs).  They may focus on service delivery (like a school district) or policy that gives rise to service delivery (like political advocacy groups).  What they hold in common is this—they are concrete plans of action implemented by organizations with the intention to make the world a better place.

What is program design?

Program design is both a verb and a noun.

It is the process that organizations use to develop a program.  Ideally, the process is collaborative, iterative, and tentative—stakeholders work together to repeat, review, and refine a program until they believe it will consistently achieve its purpose.

A program design is also the plan of action that results from that process.  Ideally, the plan is developed to the point that others can implement the program in the same way and consistently achieve its purpose.

The more energy, creativity, and hard work that goes into program design, the greater the chances that a program will succeed.

What is program evaluation?

Program evaluation is an organized effort to understand how effective a program is and how it can be made more effective.  It can be undertaken in a formative manner that supports the program design processes.  Or it can be undertaken in a summative manner that measures the effectiveness of a design as implemented in a given context.  Typically, program evaluation shifts from formative to summative, and from informal to rigorous, as the program design process advances.