Advancing the Use of Core Components of Effective Programs

Anyone who has designed, adapted, or implemented a program knows just how many factors can lead to different sites doing different things and getting different results. Federal agencies are increasingly investing in evidence-based programs that are more likely to improve key outcomes of interest. At the same time, running a program is highly dynamic and often requires adjusting to changing circumstances and conditions. Amid this complexity, how can policymakers, practitioners, and evaluators ensure that interventions are both responsive to what agencies know is the latest evidence about what works, and implemented in ways that will work for their target populations in various local contexts?

Core components are the parts, features, attributes, or characteristics of a program that a range of research techniques show influence its success when implemented effectively. For example, a component might be a particular way staff and youth interact (e.g., specific guidance on welcoming youth into a space), a key feature of the relationships or environment a program creates for the target population (e.g., a youth-driven environment), one of many activities within a program (e.g., conflict resolutions practices), the way the program is delivered (e.g., a combination of in-person and virtual events), or the amount (“dosage”) of a particular activity. In the approaches described in this paper, components serve as the unit of analysis that researchers use to determine or describe “what works,” and they become the things practitioners and policymakers seek to replicate within and across a range of related programs and systems.

This issue brief examines approaches for identifying and promoting the use of the core components of effective programs. It also explains what core components of effective programs are, their benefits for policymakers and practitioners, and what steps researchers and policymakers use to identify and implement them. It then summarizes three examples of this approach, discusses the lessons learned in the example programs, and recommends potential next steps for federal policymakers. This publication is intended to inform federal agencies and other policymakers about the potential of this approach and recommend steps they could take to advance this approach at the federal level. The brief is authored by the Forum for Youth Investment with significant input and feedback from researchers and nongovernmental partners who are also committed to advancing this approach.