It’s one thing to identify social impacts that have taken place as a result of a certain program or service. It’s another thing to identify the greater problems that have been avoided with enough rigour that a strong argument can be made about the longer-term impact that a program or service has had on a specific person or community. And it’s another thing again to show how an individual intervention, carried out again and again at the grass-roots level, begins to shift the larger system in new directions.
How can we prove, for example, that the social or systemic cost of citizens not getting enough exercise is greater than the cost of promoting fitness through accessibility to community centres, program subsidies, educational campaigns, etc? And then how do we show that such supports gradually lead to a societal shift that can eventually sustain itself because it has become second-nature, helping the whole community become more healthy?
Some of the answer to those questions will lie in philosophical positioning about the responsibility of the state vs the responsibility of the individual, but some of the answer will lie in longitudinal information-gathering of the kind of data that can draw longer-term conclusions about the social impacts of interventions.
In effect, each intervention offered at the grassroots level has the potential to change the trajectory of an individual’s or a community’s path for the better or worse, particularly when the intervention is effective and when it is offered over a longer time. (But how often is funding withdrawn before the intervention has been able to fully make its point?) Showing that groups and systems are positively changed as a result of a particular intervention sometimes requires something like latent growth modelling, in which a number of dependent variables are tracked to show how and how much change happens over time. Indicators of progress emerge, and the value of interventions becomes evident. The multiple crossroads at which interventions end up having to be available also become more clear, and the most effective interventions become the focus of specific and -ideally – of collective interventions.
It is at the point of collective interventions that significant change at the systems level becomes possible. By watching a group’s growth over a longer period, ie. by tracking the trajectories of individuals within their groups, we can develop models about how to provide social sector programs and services to greatest effect.