Network Evaluation: Phases and Patterns

Social-impact networks don’t happen overnight—they evolve. Peter Plasrik, Madeline Taylor, and John Cleveland council in their book Connecting to Change the World:

Recognizing a network’s potential evolutionary patterns can help you to anticipate and manage opportunities and challenges likely to come your way. (2014, p. 104)

The development of a network’s capability, what its members are able to do together, progresses from connectivity to alignment to production.  (2014, p. 105)

Here is what is involved in each network phase of development:

In the connection phase, members exchange information and build trust.

In the alignment phase, members capitalize on their connections to discover, explore, and define goals, strategies, and opportunities that they share.

Alignment sets the stage for the production phase in which members organize to take joint action.

Also, in each phase, the nature of member connectivity builds on and becomes more advanced than in the previous phase.

A Johnstad & Associates evaluation team member had the opportunity in November 2017 to observe a meeting of the Cross-Agency Working Group (CAWG), one of the teams operating as part of the Minnesota Food Charter Network.  Members of this workgroup include staff from the Minnesota departments of health, agriculture, human services, education, corrections, pollution control, transportation, and USDA rural development. In its current form, the group has been meeting bi-monthly since August of 2016.

Many agencies are charged with implementing programs and initiatives that impact the food system and food access in Minnesota. Collaboration and coordination across agencies can help to identify opportunities to work more efficiently and effectively to support healthy food access for all Minnesotans. State agency leadership and funds have been instrumental in creating and supporting the Minnesota Food Charter and aligning goals across all local public health agencies.  In fact, the Minnesota Food Charter had its beginnings as an outgrowth of state agency collaboration in 2012.

One focus of CAWG’s work has involved exploring and expanding strategic alignment, collaboration, and coordination across agencies. To do this, Susan Bishop, with the Minnesota Department of Health, in her role of CAWG coordinator, facilitated the process, assembled information contributed by staff from four agencies (50% of the agencies represented at the workgroup) to:

(a)    identify the nature of each agency’s work in Minnesota’s food system (e.g., funding, partnering, and/or programming), and

(b)   how this work aligns with the Minnesota Food Charter strategy domains (Infrastructure, Food Skills, Accessibility, Affordability and Availability).

The group then analyzed the information to identify current patterns (as of 2017). Some key findings are:

  • The Food Charter domain, Infrastructure, had the highest number of Identified agency initiatives (programming, funding, partnerships) to improve access to healthy food that occurs across the food system: growing, processing, distribution, and/or consumption of safe, healthy food.
  • The domains, Availability (diverse variety of healthy food more available, unhealthy foods less) and Food Skills (people are equipped with healthy food skills), had the next highest number of identified agency efforts, with each involving about the same number of strategies.
  • The domains, Accessibility (healthy food is easy to get) and Affordability (healthy food for all people regardless of income) each have identified agency efforts but less so than the other Food Charter domains.

Susan Bishop reflected on the process:

I think any group can benefit from mapping their individual or organizational efforts with Food Charter strategies. It can help the group to see the collective effort of those at the table – even though they may not be “network” activities/efforts.

Johnstad & Associates does not expect that all state agencies will move toward alignment or exploring joint action at the same pace.  We are encouraged because this first run at identifying agency alignment with the Food Charter, signals a developmental move in one part of the Minnesota Food Charter Network from the connection phase and sets the stage for cross-agency team members to explore and set in motion opportunities for coordination and collaboration.

If you want to learn more about the work of the CAWG, contact:

Susan Bishop
Healthy Communities Unit
Minnesota Department of Health

For more information about the Minnesota Food Charter Network Evaluation effort, contact:

Kristin Johnstad
Project Director
Johnstad & Associates