Exploring Core Components Research in Social Services Settings

Meeting Topic

Background and Context. A growing body of research aims to identify and study the “core components” of effective interventions, or the “essential functions and principles that define the program and are judged as being necessary to produce outcomes in a typical service setting.”[1] Researchers have developed useful models[2] and resources for identifying core components (e.g., intervention component analysis[3]) and making it possible to replicate them in varied settings (e.g., Template for Intervention Description and Replication[4]).

Core component research offers several potential benefits to the traditional evidence-building enterprise in social policy. Identifying and evaluating an intervention’s core components can make research insights more generalizable and programs more adaptable, scalable, and better equipped to pursue continuous improvement.[5] Additionally, core components research may help address a common challenge in social services settings: interventions deemed effective through formal evaluation may not have the desired impact when implemented in new environments and under different conditions, or may not be feasible to implement with existing resources. A core components approach can provide critical evidence for adapting the program across a variety of conditions. Furthermore, the goal of rigorous program evaluation is to determine whether interventions achieve desired results and deliver benefit to participants. However, many programs face challenges to participating in traditional impact evaluations. Smaller programs without the resources to adopt manualized interventions, conduct evaluations, or leverage fidelity supports could benefit from a core components approach.

Despite the potential benefits of core components analyses, most program evaluations are not designed to explore them, and few researchers have extensive experience conducting core components research. Few systematic reviews provide sufficient details about interventions’ core components, including the procedural information required to reliably implement them in the field.

Meeting Topics and Goals. OPRE’s 2020 research methods meeting convened evaluators working in different human services areas to explore how to identify and evaluate core components; the potential value of doing so for program design, improvement, and evaluation; and considerations for applying this approach in Federal research and evaluation projects. The meeting also presented examples of how core components have been applied in Federal social services contexts.

The meeting included presentations and discussions on the following questions:

  • What is a core component, and what is not?
  • What methods can researchers use to define and identify the core components of social services programs?
  • What methods can help researchers analyze the effectiveness of each of a program’s core components, once identified?
  • What are the potential benefits, drawbacks, and considerations for conducting core components research in various social services settings?
  • When, for what program types, and under what circumstances are these methods most suitable? What are some examples where a core components approach has proven helpful?
  • What steps can researchers and practitioners take to learn whether identifying and applying core components in the field leads to improved program outcomes?
  • How can core components research results be translated into usable tools, disseminated, and applied?
  • How could the Federal Government support core components research, if appropriate?

The goals of the meeting follow:

  1. Help attendees develop a broad understanding of core components research and methods for undertaking it with social services programs.
  2. Explore considerations for successfully applying core components research methods and understand the contexts in which they are most appropriate.
  3. Discuss ways the Federal Government does or could support and leverage this approach, when appropriate.

Meeting Attendees and Logistics. The meeting convened Federal staff and researchers interested in exploring core component concepts and methodologies. It was held online on October 28 and 29, 2020. Participants and speakers included representatives from the Federal Government, research firms, and academia.

[1] Blase, K. & Fixsen, D. (2013). Core intervention components: Identifying and operationalizing what makes programs work. https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/core-intervention-components-identifying-and-operationalizing-what-makes-programs-work

[2] Chorpita, B., Daleiden, E., & Weisz, J. R. (2005). Identifying and selecting the common elements of evidence based interventions: A distillation and matching model. Mental health services research, 7(1), 5–20.

[3] Sutcliffe, K., Thomas, J., Stokes, G., Hinds, K., & Bangpan, M.(2015). Intervention Component Analysis (ICA): A pragmatic approach for identifying the critical features of complex interventions. Systematic Reviews, 4, 140. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-015-0126-z

[4] Hoffmann, T., Glasziou, P. P., Boutron, I., Milne, R., Perera, R., Moher, D., Altman, D. G., Barbour, V., Macdonald, H., Johnston, M., Lamb, S. E., Dixon-Woods, M., McCulloch, P., Wyatt, J. C., Chan, A.-W., & Michie, S. (2014). Better reporting of interventions: Template for intervention description and replication (TIDieR) checklist and guide. BMJ, 348. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g1687

[5] Ferber, T., Wiggins, M., & Sileo, A. (2019). Advancing the use of core components of effective programs. https://forumfyi.org/knowledge-center/advancing-core-components/

Agenda and Presentations


Scott Cody of Insight Policy Research served as emcee each day, facilitating discussion and transition between each session listed below.

The event ran from 1:00 p.m. ET to approximately 5:10 p.m. ET each day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Welcome and Greetings from OPRE (Session 1)

1:00 – 1:15 p.m.

Naomi Goldstein (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation)

Motivation, Use, and Current Debates (Session 2)

1:15 – 2:00 p.m.

Designing Human Services for an Information-Rich World: Core Components in Context
Bruce F. Chorpita (University of California, Los Angeles)

The Path to Core Components Approaches
Cheri Hoffman (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation)

Describing the Diversity of Core Components Approaches (Session 3)

2:00 – 3:05 p.m.

Constructing and Deconstructing Evidence-Based Programs
Mark W. Lipsey (Vanderbilt University)

Where Do Components Come from and Where Do They Fit In?
Bruce F. Chorpita (University of California, Los Angeles)

What Do We Mean by Core Components?
Allison Dymnicki (American Institutes for Research)

Q&A for Sessions 2 and 3

3:05 – 3:15 p.m.


3:15 – 3:25 p.m.

Synthesis: Defining, Identifying, and Testing Components (Session 4)

3:25 – 4:10 p.m.

Analyzing Core Components
Joshua R. Polanin (American Institutes for Research)

Taxonomies and Ontologies: Organising Knowledge About Core Components
Susan Michie (University College London)

Q&A for Sessions 4 and 5

4:55 – 5:05 p.m.

Wrap-Up the Day

5:05 – 5:10 p.m.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Welcome Back and Housekeeping

1:00 – 1:10 p.m.

Synthesis to Use: Building a Bridge from Research to Practice (Session 6)

1:10 – 2:05 p.m.

SEL Kernels: Turning Social-Emotional Learning into Components
Stephanie M. Jones (Harvard University)

Synthesis to Use: Building a Bridge from Research to Practice
Poonam Borah (The Forum for Youth Investment)

Moderator and Q&A Discussion: 

Amanda Coleman (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation)

Use: Application of Core Components (Session 7)

2:05 – 3:15 p.m.

Components Research in Social Services Settings: An Agency’s Perspective
Eleanor Castillo-Sumi (Uplift Family Services)

Using Core Components to Optimize Family-Based Prevention in Title I Schools
Nancy Gonzales (Arizona State University)

The Importance of Equity in Evidence Based Program Implementation
Dirk Butler (United Way of National Capital Area)

Q&A Discussion


3:15 – 3:25 p.m.

Current Debates and Future Areas of Exploration (Session 8)

3:25 – 4:05 p.m.

Jeffrey C. Valentine (University of Louisville)

Allison Metz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)


Sean Grant (Indiana University)

Implications for the Federal Context (Session 9)

4:05 – 4:50 p.m.

Megan E. Lizik (Department of Labor)

Sandra F. Naoom (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Sarah Oberlander (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation)

Kyle Peplinski (Maternal and Child Health Bureau)

Kay O’Neill (Johns Hopkins University)


Kriti Jain (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation)

Wrap-Up the Day (Session 10)

4:50 – 5:10 p.m.

Scott Cody (Insight Policy Research)

Jenessa Malin (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation)