Grasping Developmental Evaluation

Is this what you ordered?

Developmental evaluation is gaining interest in the evaluation, service and policy communities, but do these newfound fans know what they are getting when they ask for it? Grasping the fundamentals of development as opposed to growth is one of the foundations to its utility.

I recently concluded four days of meetings with a peer group — a community of practice – on Developmental Evaluation. The CoP brings together a diverse group of professionals who are seeking to learn more about DE, apply it to their work, and to advance thinking and scholarship on the idea. We are the true-believers. At the same time, we are evaluators, policy makers, and program leaders who are pragmatic and see that DE isn’t for every situation and indeed, there are many situations where DE is not appropriate.

In his book on the subject, Michael Quinn Patton outlines a few questions that can help frame questions to ask when considering whether DE is a suitable approach — particularly with respect to when you hope to use the results:

  • What is being developed now?
  • What do the results of what has been developed mean now?
  • What are the next steps now? What is the next stage of development now?

These simple questions can help users of DE determine whether it is appropriate. In particular, the bigger question is: are you able to use information gleaned from DE now? If not, then it might be you are not wrestling with a developmental issue, but one more suited to formative or summative evaluation. You may want to know whether a program worked or how it worked, not necessarily how it is developing.

One of the analogies that I find fits DE is that of purchasing something on the Internet. Yes, you can read all about the thing, consider the specs on its dimensions, and see a picture, but when it arrives to your door there is often a surprise when you open the box and are actually holding it , seeing it before you. Sometimes that is a pleasant surprise, sometimes not, or maybe its just different, but quite often it is not the same as what you thought it was when you clicked “buy” online.

DE is truly suited to situations where you seek to develop a program, evolve it, and adapt it to changing circumstances. It requires a different mindframe around the problem context and the goals of the program than the ordinary one that is focused on growth, change over time and improvement. A development is an adaptation, while an improvement is a judgement based on pre-established criteria. Because DE is suited to programs operating in great complexity, establishing the context in advance (i.e., creating controls in traditional research parlance) is not possible.

For those looking to innovate, to evolve their programs operating in complex conditions, and to learn-as-you-go in a manner that enables on-the-fly decision making, then DE is for you. If you want evaluators to go off, bring the data, and give you results, you might want to try something else.

** Photo package! by uzbeckistan used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr

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