Defining a Program

What makes a program a program?

A recent webinar led by Boris Volkov hosted by AEA’s Organizational Learning & Evaluation Capacity Building Topic Interest Group gave me pause to think about important qualities of a program.  His talk titled From Purist to Pragmatist: Expanding Our Approaches to Building Evaluation Capacity opened with a shared definition of program, evaluation, and program evaluation. He used the CDC (2011) definition that states:

A program is any set of organized activities supported by a set of resources to achieve a specific and intended result (p. 3)

Inherent in this rather broad definition are three important moving parts:

  1. Set of resources (inputs)
  2. Set of organized activities (activities described by outputs)
  3. Specific and intended result (outcomes and impacts)

Each of these provide parameters that define and focus a program and its evaluation. Yet, embedded in the definition are the qualifiers- organized, specific, and intended. Activities must have some sort of underlying organization. Perhaps the activities are organized developmentally, sequenced by difficulty, or arranged in some manner as a result of previous research. Results must be specific and intended. That is, there is a desired end that can be clearly articulated so as to justify the means.

A program exists when the qualifiers (organized, specific, and intended) are understood and there is a logical relationship between resources, activities, and outcomes. This logical arrangement is often described in a program’s logic model. Without understood qualifiers and an articulated logic, a program is not a program, but rather a loose set of activities.