featured case study

Building a framework for curiosity

1 May 2012

Willis Newson’s new evaluation service is the brainchild of three people: Jane Willis, Director of Willis Newson, Meg Attwood, our Research and Evaluation Lead and Professor Norma Daykin of the University of the West of England (UWE). Why did they think it was necessary and what makes it both unique and valuable for the sector? 

Jane is clear about why evaluation is important to her: “There’s simply no point doing the work we do, claiming that it improves health, wellbeing, the patient experience, if we don’t know whether that is the case. Evaluation is a way of really understanding and learning, and what are we if we don’t learn; if we aren’t curious?”  

Meg agrees. “To me, evaluation is an essential part of practice. You could see all activity as a process of inquiry, an exercise in trial and error. It’s curiosity with a purpose, with a framework if you like.”

“I used to be sceptical,” says Jane, who has not always been so convinced.  “I couldn’t see how evaluation in this field would be able to compete with clinical trials.  I felt we should focus our efforts on winning hearts and minds.  I still think this is important, but working on an academic evaluation of our Moving On project with Norma changed my view.  It helped articulate the project’s impacts on service users and it helped me reflect on and learn from the work we had done.  It influenced the way in which we developed and delivered the next project – for the better.  And, I saw how project stakeholders – the Medical Director, the Trust Research Director – were interested in the results.”

“an exciting time for evaluation right now”

Very few arts in health projects are large or lucky enough with funding to be able to afford academic or other rigorous approaches to external evaluation.  Yet these smaller projects make up the majority of the activity within the sector.  “We can’t bury our heads in the sand saying that we cannot afford to evaluate them,” says Jane.

Norma agrees, but is positive about the opportunities being created through academic research:  “It’s an exciting time for evaluation right now.  The sector has moved from strength to strength in recent years, the evidence base is growing.  From my position, I see some significant and important opportunities to develop evidence and understanding of the role of arts in health through major funding programmes such as the National Institute of Health Research and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.”

She also points out that there is a real growth in the number of networking organisations that have raised the profile of arts and health and have brought researchers together. She is sympathetic to the challenges facing practitioners on the ground:  “They need to be able to respond to demands for robust evidence to support their programmes.  But, their ability to respond is hampered by budgetary constraints, lack of access to training, and because evaluation models and methodologies within the field are relatively undeveloped.”

Sharing and embedding knowledge

This then is the background to the development of Willis Newson’s new evaluation service.  What began as a discussion between Norma and Jane about how the company could evaluate its own work in a credible way resulted in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Willis Newson and UWE. 

So began two years of knowledge sharing through the funding of the post of Research and Evaluation Lead at Willis Newson, bringing researcher Meg Attwood into the picture.  “It was an exciting opportunity for me to bridge the gap between my love of the arts and my research background.”  Meg’s work over the past two years has developed an evaluation service that is flexible, nimble and well-adapted to suit the needs of the sector’s practitioners.  “I have always been a keen advocate for the benefits of creative expression. It was important to me to create a framework that was appropriate, that could be delivered by arts and health practitioners themselves and which would be creative, reflecting the nature of arts and health practice.”

For all three of the creators of this service, the vital element is the way in which it embeds evaluation knowledge within the evaluating organisation.  It’s an approach, says Norma, that “allows organisations and individuals to go through a guided evaluation cycle and then retain the learning and tools that are needed to continue the process.”

“Making the whole process affordable and sustainable”

According to Meg, trial projects with Light Box and South Staffordshire and Shropshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust “have shown that with the right mindset and some hands-on training and mentoring, robust evaluation really can be delivered by the project manager or project team, making the whole process affordable and sustainable.” 

There are further reasons for adopting a simple, yet rigorous and credible approach such as this.  As Jane says, “collectively, as a sector, we will develop our practice, improve the quality of our work and grow the evidence base”.  All of which should have knock-on effects for everyone working in the arts and health field, and – most importantly – for the health and wellbeing of the people and patients who benefit from our work.