Exploring Core Components Research in Social Services Settings

Publication Date: April 9, 2021
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  • Published: 2021


A growing body of research aims to identify and study the core components of effective interventions, defined as the “essential functions and principles that define the program and are judged as being necessary to produce outcomes in a typical service setting.”[1] Core components approaches can complement traditional social policy evidence building; for example, by making research insights more generalizable and programs more adaptable, scalable, and better equipped to pursue continuous improvement.[2] A core components approach can also provide evidence critical for successfully adapting programs across a variety of conditions, determining which intervention elements are critical to achieving desired results, and delivering benefit to participants. Despite the potential benefits, most program evaluations are not designed to explore core components, and few researchers have extensive experience in implementing such approaches. Few systematic reviews provide sufficient details about interventions’ core components, including the procedural information required to reliably implement them in the field.


[1] Blase, K., & Fixsen, D. (2013). Core intervention components: Identifying and operationalizing what makes programs work. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/core-intervention-components-identifying-and-operationalizing-what-makes-programs-work Visit disclaimer page

[2] Ferber, T., Sileo, A., & Wiggins, M. E. (2019). Advancing the use of core components of effective programs. Forum for Youth Investment. https://forumfyi.org/knowledge-center/advancing-core-components/ Visit disclaimer page


On October 28—29, 2020, the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation convened a virtual meeting for participants from Federal agencies, research firms, academia, and other organizations to discuss core components approaches.

This summary document highlights key themes and presentations from the virtual meeting, which addressed the following questions:

  • What is the motivation for using core components approaches?
  • What are the steps to implementing core components approaches?
  • How can researchers identify, organize, and test components?
  • How have researchers built bridges to practice and why are they needed?
  • How have practitioners applied core components in social services settings?
  • What are the current debates and future areas of exploration surrounding core components approaches?
  • How have core components approaches been applied in the Federal context and how might they be applied?

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Although research has generated a wealth of information to help address social problems, stakeholders sometimes struggle to use it effectively. Core components approaches provide new and different ways to use available information.
    • Recent policy developments have paved the way for exploring core components approaches at the Federal level (e.g., Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018). Such approaches can complement traditional evidence-building efforts.
  • Core components approaches are diverse and offer varied ways to use information about social services programs. Common steps to implementing these approaches follow:
    • Identify. Develop theories about which identified components of programs might be instrumental in helping targeted populations achieve desired outcomes.
    • Test. Winnow the identified components based on which ones empirically predict the targeted population’s improvement in desired outcomes across several contexts and subpopulations.
    • Empower. Create guides, tools, assessments, protocols, techniques, and processes that facilitate translation and dissemination of core components for use by practitioners.
    • Validate. Test the tools and methods to determine whether they increased the use of the core components and whether they led to better participant outcomes.
    • Scale. Implement a strategy to scale up the use of the tools and methods proven to increase practitioners’ use of the core components.
  • As for any research enterprise, researchers studying core components should begin by confirming their project’s purpose, the intended audience, how study results will be used, and the guiding research questions. The answers to these questions should guide the selection of an analytical approach and methods.
  • Researchers have applied core components approaches effectively in a range of settings, studying and adapting program types including services for youth, mental health services, and educational interventions.
  • Core components approaches are continuously evolving and will likely offer new opportunities to strengthen the field of social services research in the future (e.g., by offering new ways to conduct research syntheses).
  • Implementing core components approaches in Federal contexts can require particular care and sensitivity but offers promising new ways to build the evidence base for Federal programs.


Holzwart, R., Wagner, H., & Worden, M. (2021). Exploring core components research in social services settings (OPRE Report 2021-52). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.


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