OPRE’s Research and Evaluation Conference on Self-Sufficiency (RECS) featured two weeks of virtual content in October. This biennial gathering offers attendees an opportunity to hear the latest findings from evaluations of human services and employment programs and policies, discuss ways to incorporate findings into the design and implementation of programs, and identify future evaluation needs.
Held in a virtual format for the first time, the 2020 conference attracted an unprecedented 1744 attendees and engaged more than 200 speakers across five plenaries, 40 concurrent breakout sessions, nine networking roundtables, a research symposium, a career panel, and two “lightning round” poster presentations Visit disclaimer page from 17 emerging scholars.
Conference sessions addressed perennial questions in the research and evaluation of programs and policies as well as novel issues facing policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and participants today. Below we highlight three of the themes that emerged across the sessions.
1. Working across policy and program silos to put children and families at the center of service design and delivery
ACF Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson and Office of Family Assistance Director Clarence Carter opened the conference with leaders from the Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture to discuss a multi-agency partnership to help individuals access the supports they need to overcome barriers to entering and remaining in the workforce. “We’re not saying let’s just get people to work. We’re saying, what will it take to end poverty? We know work is a tool to do that. Coming together is making a huge difference,” Assistant Secretary Johnson said. The partnership will support state and local government innovations across programs, in coordination with their business communities.
In another plenary session on response and recovery efforts underway as a result of COVID-19, Amanda Benton from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation discussed how the pandemic has highlighted challenges participants face accessing multiple human services in times of critical need. She described the department’s work to develop and serve as the first chair of a new U.S. Interagency Council on Economic Mobility, which now has representatives from ten federal agencies and offices. “Our goal was to build a long-term structure that makes coordination on employment and work support programs business as usual. We want to move beyond personal relationships to have institutional processes,” Benton said.
2. Strategies to develop and share evidence in ways that encourage use by a broad range of stakeholders
Ella Gifford-Hawkins, a TANF expert and practitioner, described her experience serving as a stakeholder in the development of the Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse Visit disclaimer page in a plenary session about the Clearinghouse’s recent launch. “If a clearinghouse is going to be effective, you have to be able to navigate it somewhat easily,” she said. “We had meetings together where we could have conversations between the researchers and practitioners about what made sense to each of us.” Gifford-Hawkins said the result of this work is a platform that makes it easy to find, understand, and apply concrete lessons from the research literature to everyday practice.
In another session, Mary Ellen Wiggins of the Forum for Youth Investment facilitated a conversation with Ivan Lui and members of the Youth Data Squad from the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth about the organization’s local, youth-driven research to understand youth participation in out-of-school-time programs and activities. Youth Data Squad members Alexander Garduno-Garcia, Tiffany Nyamao, and Egan Moua emphasized how involving youth—typically cast only as the subjects of research—in the planning and conduct of research can improve data validity and lay the groundwork for use of the evidence generated.
3. Resiliency in the face of shocks affecting ACF programs and the people they serve
Across sessions, the program and research realities presented by COVID-19 catalyzed questions and conversation.
In the plenary dedicated to the topic of response and recovery in human services during COVID-19, speakers addressed what we are learning about how programs have pivoted, how program participation rates are changing across phases of the pandemic, and how the lessons learned may inform future phases of service delivery and policy flexibility. David Stillman, Assistant Secretary at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, described how his agency is using call center data to understand operational impacts on the agency and caseload trends to understand changes in the underlying need for services and possible challenges to program access. Looking forward, Stillman said, “We need to think about and respond in ways that are new and that truly help our clients. I’m happy that part of what we’re doing here with this conference and the work we [in Washington State] are doing is to examine what has worked in the face of the pandemic and to further challenge ourselves to adopt new approaches.”
Every RECS is an opportunity to reflect on successes, challenges, and new learning in the area of family economic self-sufficiency and well-being, and to spur continued exploration. We appreciate the engagement of so many attendees, speakers, and partners throughout the conference.