Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): A Process Evaluation. Building Public Support, Obtaining Resources, and Grounding the OMI in Research:  2000

05/23/2008

The second year of the initiative involved multiple activities to develop support and stakeholder buy-in, and to begin laying the foundation for implementation of services. 

Developing broad interest.  From the outset, Oklahoma recognized the need to develop broad support for an initiative focusing on marriage. OMI leadership realized early that marriage can be a sensitive and personal issue for many, and that an initiative promoting marriage could be seen as politically or religiously motivated.  They knew that such fears by the public could obscure the potential advantages of taking action to strengthen families.  For these reasons, they began to engage experts and key leaders to help build public awareness of the initiative, develop credibility, and address the concerns raised by some groups.  First, they established a steering committee to help plan and advance the initiative.  Howard Hendrick, director of DHS, became an important member of the group.  Prior to being named DHS director in 1998, he had served for 12 years in the Oklahoma State Senate, where he developed close relationships with other legislators.  These relationships proved useful in keeping communication open as OMI developed.

The OMI also engaged experts to collaborate in planning and to speak to interested groups.  Engaging leaders and experts with strong reputations and potentially different perspectives on issues helped OMI prepare for and address initial skeptics and opponents.  Experts working with the steering committee included, for example, Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, and Theodora Ooms of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).[6]  Advocates for domestic violence services were also included as partners, adding depth and diversity to the team.

To build public support, OMI delivered its message to key leaders and larger audiences of individual citizens.  Secretary Regier and other OMI leaders met with leaders from a range of Oklahomas sectors to encourage them to seek ways to speak up for and support marriage.  To present a case for taking action, they often drew on existing research showing how marriage affects family and child outcomes.  Relationship experts were retained to speak to a variety of audiences around the state.  Dr. Parrot first spoke at a state health department-sponsored conference of more than 800 public health nurses.  He and his wife moved to Oklahoma for a year and were named scholars in residence at Oklahoma State University.  In this role, they made appearances as OMI marriage ambassadors throughout the state, including at college and university venues. 

Securing funding.  In 2000, the state leaders realized that substantial funding would be needed to implement the initiative on the broad scale envisioned.  The governor asked DHS, then headed by Howard Hendrick, to commit $10 million to the effort from surplus funds in its federal TANF block grant.  The surplus funds were the result of dramatic declines in Oklahomas TANF caseload in the years following the 1996 welfare reform.  DHS met Keatings request and pledged 10 percent of the $100 million surplus funds to OMI.  The result was a large pool of funding to sustain the planning and implementation process, as well as a highly public endorsement of the OMIs importance.  

Developing a public-private partnership.  With the newly committed funds, DHS initiated a competitive bid process for the development and management of the initiative.  It contracted with PSI, which had been involved with OMI since the 1999 Governors Conference on Marriage, for which it had been hired to boost attendance and increase representation across sectors.  After the conference, PSI continued to work on the OMI through a small planning grant, and then on a voluntary basis prior to the competitive bid announcement. 

Both DHS and PSI saw important benefits for OMI in this partnership.  As a private entity, PSI had the flexibility to develop staffing that suited the OMIs needs and to make changes quickly as the initiative evolved.  Outsourcing lessened the perception that the OMI was a government program and reassured some groups that may have been skeptical about partnering with the government.  However, PSI did not have experience with marriage programming or delivering services.  Retaining DHS as the lead agency gave PSI credibility within state government and helped ensure that the OMI would have access to major social service programs and providers as possible venues and referral sources for marriage education activities.

Grounding the initiative in research.  The OMI made an early commitment to rely on research to guide its development.  Research has been an integral to its development, from the findings on family structure that first stimulated the idea for the initiative, to subsequent strategies and approaches for implementation.  Almost from its inception, it  has been guided by a panel of state and national experts on marriage, divorce, and low-income families.  The interdisciplinary Research Advisory Group (RAG), formed in 2000, is a panel of academic scholars, university-based practitioners and researchers, and policy experts and evaluators that meets annually and whose members may contribute to research activities throughout the year (see Appendix A).  The RAG provides information on which the OMI can base its continued development and the improvement of program operations, lending credibility to the mission and services of the initiative.

One of the first activities of the RAG was to develop a survey of Oklahomas citizens, focusing on attitudes and behavior regarding marriage and divorce.  The 2001 Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce provided a baseline against which to assess later changes in such measures  and provided information that could inform development of the initiative.  The survey randomly sampled 2,020 adults in the general population and 303 Medicaid clients (Johnson et al. 2002).  Members of the RAG worked together with the Oklahoma State University Bureau of Social Research to design the survey, analyze the data, and report on the results.  

Among other findings, the survey identified key population groups that could be targeted by the initiative.  For example, it showed that the average age at first marriage was lower in Oklahoma than in other states, suggesting that it might be useful to direct services to young people, such as high school students.  Analysis of the oversample of low-income individuals revealed that, despite a less positive view of marriage, they would be interested in marriage education services.  These findings contributed to a focus on services for the low-income population.

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