Focusing on Social Services in North Carolina
This week I had the opportunity to see the staff of the Program Evaluation Division (PED) conduct focus groups. These focus groups, which were done for the Administrative Functions of County Departments of Social Services project, were utilized as survey development tools. The goal was to use some of the information relayed at the focus group for subsequent surveys, queries, or data follow-ups. And so…county directors of social services from various counties met with PED at the Forsyth County Social Services Department in the illustrious city of Winston Salem!
Focus groups can serve as a great tool for evaluators, but several things must be kept in mind. When conducting a focus group the answers to questions (raw data) will differ greatly. Because of the group dynamic many of the answers will build on each other, or will vary greatly depending on the tempo of the group. Because of this variability the data may not always be quantifiable. Depending on how the focus group questions are structured and how the respondents answer, a significant amount of information received may be anecdotal. Depending on what you are looking for, anecdotal information can serve as a useful tool for the background or context of the project.
Back to Winston Salem….
With the stage set… the focus groups were underway. The department of social services project team (PED) did a great job constructing and assembling the questions for the groups. Questions were tailored with the directors and their respective roles in mind.
Respondents were asked questions about the strengths and challenges of the current county administered/state supervised system; their thoughts on the current system and what could be done to consolidate programs or services; their opinions on different consolidation models utilized by other counties or regions; and their perceptions on barriers and factors that impeded the consolidation of more efficient program/service delivery.
Some really interesting phenomena I observed…
- Although the two focus groups consisted of directors of social services, one group consisted of the executive leadership for the directors; and so their answers were quite different. Differences dealt primarily with the strengths of the current system and perceived barriers/factors towards consolidation.
- It was surprising to hear how involved local governments are in the state supervised, county administered system. Social service boards and their membership are determined partly by the Social Services Department, county commissioners, and county managers. This set-up prevents any one group from asserting their political influence.
- Conducting a focus group and ensuring that the respondents stay on target takes great skill. Pam Taylor and Sean Hamel were able to keep the respondents on target, delve deeper into particular questions/answers, and maintain a pleasant environment. This may sound easy but depending on the group it can be a real challenge.
*The views expressed on this blog posting are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.