Epidemiological workgroups play a vital role in ensuring that states and communities understand and use data to inform their prevention decisions. Comprising data experts from substance use, health, justice, education, social service, and mental health fields, epidemiological workgroups gather, analyze, interpret, and disseminate data related to substance misuse and other behavioral health problems. Practitioners and policymakers can then use these data to identify problems and reach those populations in greatest need.
Yet many states have difficulty sustaining their “epi workgroups” over time. As funding sources shift and initial data analysis and assessment activities end, many workgroups disband or are unsure how to proceed.
“Across the country, states shared with us stories of how their epidemiological workgroups had dissolved,” says CAPT Project Coordinator Rachel Pascale. "Some groups weren't sure what to do after they completed their state assessments. Others struggled with changes in leadership and staff turnover. And in states, tribes, and jurisdictions where epi workgroups are still active, many struggle to keep members engaged and to sustain the groups' work over time.”
Pascale notes that 66% of states with whom CAPT spoke identified “revitalizing, maintaining, and expanding epi workgroups” as an important prevention challenge.
To address this need, CAPT developed the two-part webinar series Enhancing the Structure and Function of State/Tribe Epidemiological Workgroups. This series was delivered in April and June 2015 to state prevention staff and epidemiology workgroup leaders and members nationwide. The interactive sessions focused on techniques for recruiting and retaining workgroup members, and drawing on best practices and case examples from prevention practitioners in the field.
Recruiting New Members
Epidemiological workgroups depend on the involvement of a broad range of professionals.
“The strength of the workgroup is in the diversity and experience of its members,” says Sandeep Kasat, CAPT director of epidemiology. “But like all busy professionals, most of these members have limited time and energy to share. So they’re often reluctant to join—at least initially.”
Recognizing this challenge, the first webinar of the series focused on strategies for strengthening recruitment efforts—beginning with a self-assessment of workgroup needs.
“Workgroups need to be strategic about who they are asking to join, why they are asking those particular members, and what those members will get out of being a part of the workgroup,” says Kasat. “The ‘ask’ needs to be tied to need. Workgroups where members give and gain expertise are more likely to work together in the long term. But workgroups need to be able to articulate these benefits to ensure that participation is a win-win for everyone involved.”
To support them in their efforts, participants received worksheets to help them describe:
- What they want the workgroup to accomplish
- Who they need at the table to help them reach these goals
- How each candidate will benefit from participation
“When it comes to making a pitch, one size never fits all,” says CAPT epidemiologist Candace Peterson, a webinar presenter. In fact, she explains, the most successful pitches are highly tailored to the needs and concerns of the audience. So Peterson encouraged participants to do their homework, know who they’re talking to, then use what they know to shape their pitch accordingly. For example, a pitch to a potential member from the Department of Transportation might highlight how the workgroup might help to reduce motor vehicle fatalities, while a pitch to a member of the school board might focus on the relationship of substance use to student safety.
Peterson cautioned that recruitment can take time, and that patience is key. “Expect the conversation to be a two-way street,” she explained. “Be prepared to listen as well as to speak. And be concrete. Be able to clarify what participation will involve and what you hope to accomplish. People want to feel confident that their limited time will be spent wisely.”
Keeping Members Engaged
But successful recruitment is just a piece of the revitalization puzzle. What happens then? To answer this question, session two of the series focused on strategies for sustaining member engagement over time. Defining clear roles, responsibilities, and activities were high on the list.
“Workgroup members want to be involved in meaningful ways,” says Kasat. “It’s important to give them responsibility, to assign roles that are well-matched to their skills and experiences, and to involve members in tasks that are interesting, useful, and have clear outcomes. Without these parameters in place, groups tended to lose focus—and members”
Clarifying roles and responsibilities is particularly important for workgroups that are being revitalized. Kasat recognized that the responsibilities of the epidemiological workgroup are relatively clear at the start of a new project—when workgroups lead the charge in helping states and communities assess and prioritize prevention needs, and to develop epidemiological profiles that describe these needs. After that, the workgroup needs to contribute throughout the planning process.
“Communities need data to select appropriate prevention strategies, and then to monitor and evaluate these strategies,” says Kasat. “Workgroups can play an important role in helping them to do so. They need to continue to evolve as activities evolve.”
For example, Thia Walker, epidemiological workgroup chair for Mississippi, shared how she brought an outdated charter from 2006 into alignment with the group's current goals and activities. “I thought, ‘Let's keep the charter in place but add some by-laws to address things currently taking place and the current needs of our workgroup,’” she said. “We drafted by-laws that aligned our goals with our mission, brought them to our workgroup, and they provided guidance and feedback. ” Walker said this clarification helped keep workgroup members energized and on task.
Presenters also focused on the importance of examining workgroup processes, underscoring that process (how the group functions) is as important as product (what the group accomplishes). Carol Oliver, CAPT director of training and technical assistance, encouraged participants to explore questions such as:
- How often does the group meet?
- When does it meet?
- Who works on what?
- How are decisions made?
“The processes you put in place need to be a good fit for who you have at the table,” says Oliver. “For example, if you have a lot of members with a lot of time constraints, consider a structure where different members have different levels of responsibility. Maybe only have a core group drive and attend all meetings, and tap partners and affiliate members occasionally to access certain pieces of data or disseminate findings to specific audiences. If you think about membership from a more dynamic place, it may give you more options for how to involve and get the value added from members who might not have the time commitment that you need.”
The important thing, Oliver underscores, is to pay attention to process—and to be willing to change how you work, if needed.
“Successful workgroups require nurturing and continual re-evaluation,” says Oliver. “Groups that stay static and don't evolve can get easily get burned out.”
The webinar series has been well received by participants, who described it as “valuable” and “concrete.”
One participant wrote, “I think it was great information, and wish I'd had this months ago when I was putting together my first epi workgroup as a new project director.”
Another wrote, “I had suspected we needed to collect [information that] would make participation in the SEOW valuable to [members], but now I feel I have more reason to do this and present the idea to [our] leadership.”
CAPT will build on the success of these national events by providing customized support and technical assistance to individual grantees, including tribes, as well as peer-sharing opportunities.
“There is so much to be learned from other grantees who are doing the same work, experiencing the same challenges, and developing innovative approaches to engaging their epi workgroups," says Pascale. “The more we can tap and share these experiences, the stronger our prevention efforts, overall.”
Webinar Date and Time: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 12:00am