Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): A Process Evaluation. Major Lessons Learned

05/23/2008

The OMI set out to develop a broad network of providers for delivering marriage and relationship skills education in large part by building on existing infrastructure.  This approach inevitably encounters issues pertaining to fit  the alignment of the initiatives goals and approach with those of service delivery providers and the needs of the populations they serve.  The OMIs experience suggests that full implementation within an institutional sector is most likely when the initiatives mission fits well with the agencys, when the agency is strongly motivated to succeed and closely monitors its own progress, when the curriculum corresponds to the needs and interest of agency clients, and when there is a steady source of participants.  These advantages, however, are not sufficient if other issues are not addressed, such as buy-in by frontline staff or resistance to a focus on marriage.

Existing infrastructure and a steady source of prospective participants are associated with greater workshop activity.  Workshop delivery has benefited from an established enrollment process, a pre-existing model for delivering classes, and reliable workshop venues.  Organizations that had pre-existing classes or group-based instruction on related topics, such as high school classes on marriage and family life, have found it straightforward to incorporate OMI workshops.  An established process for enrollment, such as class registration at high schools or the application process for TANF recipients, has also simplified recruitment.  Having a reliable location for holding workshops has been particularly important for community volunteers. 

Recruitment of couples or individuals has been easier when workshop leaders or sponsoring agencies have had access to a continuous source of prospective participants.  Agencies and institutions that could recruit participants from their existing clientele have been more likely to succeed in implementing workshops and continuing them.  Community volunteers unaffiliated with such an agency or organization often had difficulty recruiting participants, as did agency staff who were expected to go beyond their existing clientele to find participants.

A good fit between the initiatives goals and the priorities of its partner organizations is critical.  Some institutions, agencies, or organizations may be attractive as marriage initiative partners due to their focus on families, their accessibility to potential participants, or their enjoyment of a statewide infrastructure.  However, strong agencies typically have an established culture and mission, usually reflected in well-defined priorities, such as rehabilitation for prison inmates, prevention of further offenses among juvenile offenders, general education of youth, or employment for parents receiving government assistance.  When instruction in relationship skills is well aligned with the mission of an agency, as it was with the Family and Consumer Sciences division in Oklahomas high schools, widespread implementation is likely to result.  In general, leadership and staff are most likely to embrace a marriage initiatives goals when they are supportive of and in line with the agencys pre-existing priorities.

Strong buy-in among agencies frontline staff can promote implementation success; absence of buy-in can impede progress.  The experiences of several agencies in the OMIs early years indicates that although an organization or agency may have the right tracks on which to run OMI workshops, and even have the support of high-level leadership, frontline staff might not automatically welcome or wholeheartedly support it.  Lack of buy-in among frontline staff in some OMI partnerships was associated with a lower volume of workshops delivered.  There were also instances when services withered after a change in high-level agency leadership.  These experiences suggest that inviting the input and feedback of frontline staff and responding to their concerns is important to strong and sustained implementation.

To engage both service providers and participants, the curriculum should respond to the target populations needs.  Any statewide initiative that strives to bring about widespread change in behavior and attitudes regarding family formation and structure must speak to the needs and interests of individuals in diverse relationship circumstances  for example, singles as well as married couples, dating adolescents as well as parents, and low-income as well as middle-class families.  In the OMIs case, it appears that local implementation has been more likely when the curriculum has been adapted to be responsive to the circumstances of the specific population served.  For example, agencies serving single parents with a history of involvement in abusive relationships have been more likely to use the OMI curriculum once it has been adapted to include an emphasis on how to recognize and choose healthy partners in the future. 

Volunteers desire to help must be bolstered by skills and resources.  Although many individual volunteers have accepted the OMIs offer of curriculum training, relatively few have met the requirement to deliver four free workshops.  A range of factors explain this result, including a lack of skill or resources for finding and recruiting likely participants, lack of a location to conduct classes, and difficulties arranging other workshop supports.  OMI staff have found that individuals and agencies without a steady source of participants are especially likely to need additional training and follow-up assistance to help them identify such sources.  The OMI experience suggests that marriage initiatives relying on volunteers to deliver workshops should plan to recruit and train more volunteers than they might expect to need  but also should develop strategies to avoid training volunteers who might end up competing with each other for participants. 

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