What is Evaluation For?

Evaluation is the longest four-letter word in the English language. Kidding aside, what is evaluation? Why should we all care?

Evaluators are an existential bunch, which might surprise you.

Evaluation is not a popular word with people. Too often it’s associated with things that are done to us not with us or for us or by us. It’s seen as more auditing and judgement, adherence to rules or standards, and there is little room for creativity or flexibility in it all. Evaluation is something we might have to do rather than want to do.

It would be a lie to suggest that much of these statements have had truth to them, but it would be a greater lie to confine evaluation to this caricature that is rapidly dissipating into oblivion.

Part of the reason is the answer(s) to the question posed in the title: what is evaluation for?

As we recognize the role of complexity in our lives and the need for better design of our systems and organizations, the need and opportunity for evaluation to contribute to our world has never been greater.

It’s time to re-think and better state what evaluation is for and in doing so define more about what it is.

Evaluation: What it’s for

Decision making. What are we doing and what could we do next? Evaluating your programs help you answer these questions. Rather than being arbitrary, why not use data and a structured process to help? You’ll end up with better decision support and more transparency.

Seeing the future. By understanding what we do now and its effects, we are able to apply foresight and evaluation methods to seeing what could happen, how that connects to our strategies and decisions today, and reinforce or support what we do today to influence tomorrow.

Design. Evaluation data provides the feedback necessary to undertake design work and design thinking. Without good data to support the design process of research, ideation, prototyping and implementation design thinking is an art project with a purpose . John Nash has illustrated how evaluation and design are linked in his new book looking a design thinking and schools.

Asking better questions. Few things will engage people like good questions. These questions about what we are doing, who we are, and how we undertake our work and live our values are fundamental to evaluation work. Evaluators gather the data used to answer and ask these questions.

Creating conversation. What do the answers to our questions mean? The asking and answering of questions in a manner that is transparent, potentially practical, and relevant to people’s lives is what fosters engagement between people. This taps into what makes us distinct, what brings us together, and the curiosity and purpose people have about the world.

Speaking truth to power. The theme of the 2018 American Evaluation Association conference was this topic. For nearly a week, thousands of evaluators engaged in often deep, wide-ranging, and difficult conversations about what it means to evaluate and how it has been used to suppress or ignore communities in the past and present and how it’s being used to liberate, educate, and inspire them today. Data, democracy, rights, and responsibilities are all part of evaluation.

Honouring our work. For innovators in particular, so much of the work that goes into creating a product or service is lost to the end user who only sees the end result. Evaluation data allows us to recognize the effort that goes into making something and helping inform how to make it again (scale) or make it different.

Learning. We learn from attention and engagement. Evaluation data provides a focus for attention and, as mentioned above, engagement. It is also the one outcome we can guarantee when innovating. When used in a structured manner across an organization, evaluation can be a catalyst for organizational transformation.

Leading system change. Complex systems evolve and adapt based on feedback. Evaluation is the means of providing and structuring that feedback. We can either have the winds of change blow us anywhere, or we can sail with the winds to where we want to go. Evaluation data also feeds and helps shape the systems models we need to inform any systemic change and design.

Telling stories about who we are as people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other is based on data (even if we don’t think of it as such). Evaluation provides the means of making that data a little more systematic to help translate the story of one person or group into meaning for another. In an age where its been more difficult than ever to communicate, why would we not want something that is designed to help us to that better?

Promoting health and preventing harm. What contributes to our well-being? What actions promote harm? How do we know? Simple cause-and-effect situations can be easy to assess. What happens when we aren’t sure — like with drug education programs, the effect of eating certain foods on our health, or the role of social technologies on our mental health.

Reinforcing democratic ideals. A recent post from Katri Vataja and Pinka Parkkonen and reflects on their work in Finland using evaluation as a vehicle for fostering democratic engagement around social policy and what it means for the future. They argue that evaluation has an ethical imperative to understand people — the evaluands — and to use that data to support their needs, goals, and aspirations for the future.

Design and innovation. Evaluation data is the lifeblood of innovation. It is the innovator’s secret advantage. Over at Cense.ca there is a whole series devoted to exploring this and why great innovation can’t succeed without good evaluation.

Provoking curiosity. When the world seems to be going mad, having something to mindfully focus on and contemplate can allow us to see calm in the noise, peace amidst violence, and good when evil takes centre stage. It’s a big job, but evaluation provides a means to focus on what is happening and invoke curiosity about the world by giving us something constructive to contemplate.

Recognizing humanity. If it’s not obvious from the other points, one thing that evaluation does really well is recognize our humanity. It provides a means to allow us to celebrate, to improve, to recognize where we fall short and where we exceed our goals. Evaluators are looking at our place on the planet, how we can see into the future and be visionaries, and how we can lead and support change.

This is an incomplete list. Please feel free to comment and add to this below.

Evaluation is not what most people think it is. And unlike many other ‘things’ to lay claim to its potential to transform, evaluation is one of the few that has the data to back it up.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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