The Evaluation of Place-Based Approaches

Author (s): 

Teresa Bellefontaine, Policy Horizons Canada
Robin Wisener, Myro & Partners

Document Type: 

Conference Chatter

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*The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors.

1. Introduction

Collaborative place-based approaches (PBAs) have emerged as a means of addressing “wickedly” complex issues: those that have many interacting causes and are seen to require multiple actors to develop a co-ordinated response (Shugart and Townsend, 2010). Some wicked issues commonly associated with PBAs include climate change, poverty, obesity, crime, indigenous disadvantage, and natural resource management (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007).

Complexity has been identified as a challenge across disciplines, particularly in the public sector (Venema and Drexhage, 2009). Place-based approaches have been identified as one possible way [1] to address these intractable issues and are gaining momentum in Canada[2] and internationally. The Government of Canada’s Policy Research Initiative (now Policy Horizons Canada) published two related issues of Horizons – Sustainable Places and Innovative Communities – that more fully explore the increase in place-based approaches and social innovation, as well as the federal government’s role within them.

Table 1: Common Characteristics of Place-Based Approaches

  • Are designed (or adapted) locally to meet unique conditions
  • Engage participants from a diverse range of sectors and jurisdictions in collaborative decision-making processes
  • Are opportunity-driven, dependent on local talent, resources, and constraints
  • Have an evolving process due to adaptive learning and stakeholder interests
  • Attempt to achieve synergies by integrating across silos, jurisdictions, and dimensions of sustainability
  • Leverage assets and knowledge through shared ownership of the initiative
  • Frequently attempt to achieve behaviour change

Place-based approaches can be most simply defined as stakeholders engaging in a collaborative process to address issues as they are experienced within a geographic space, be it a neighbourhood, a region, or an ecosystem. These approaches have a common set of characteristics (see Table 1) that challenge traditional notions of evaluation (Coote et al, 2004; Federal Family, 2008; PRI, 2010b; RGI, 2010). Persistent challenges for evaluation remain: the nature of open systems, long-term objectives, accountability in collaborative stakeholder processes and, in particular, measurement. A workshop held in March 2010 at Carleton University explored the current place-based priorities for the federal government.

Academics and senior Government of Canada officials identified the increasing involvement of the federal government in PBAs within Canada and the need to better answer the question: how do we know if PBAs are working (RGI, 2010)? This question implies a need to understand whether PBAs are working, when, and under what conditions; and whether there are effective evaluative processes by which governments can best come to this determination. These questions accompanied a call for the federal government to “adopt new performance metrics that embrace uncertainty, are open and transparent, and are outcomes-based” (RGI, 2010: 9).

“The [Canadian] federal government can develop tools to evaluate the effectiveness of place-based initiatives and design its own performance metrics in a way that they are sensitive to local contexts, for example by including indicators of local performance.”
- RGI (2010: 2)

“The [Canadian] federal government can develop tools to evaluate the effectiveness of place‐based initiatives and design its own performance metrics in a way that they are sensitive to local contexts, for example by including indicators of local performance.” ‐ RGI (2010: 2)

This paper documents the characteristics of PBAs and the reasons they have been identified as needing more effective evaluation to enable a discussion of possible alternative evaluation approaches, particularly within the public service context. The paper seeks to raise questions from the perspective of place-based research, and concludes with suggested areas for further research. By looking across policy areas, this paper endeavours to encourage a broader base of learning for PBAs. This paper has been developed with input from an interdepartmental network of federal public servants working on place-based issues and an advisory committee of evaluation practitioners. (See the annex for a complete list.)


[1] For example, Nancy Roberts analyzed three potential responses: collaborative strategies, authoritative strategies, and competitive strategies. She concluded that collaborative strategies are most appropriate for wicked issues (Roberts cited in Australian Public Service Commission, 2007: 9).

[2] See the Policy Research Initiative, Horizons: Sustainable Places, volume 10, issue 4, for an exploration of place-based approaches in Canada.