Spotlight on Fundamentals of Evaluation: foundations for clear-thinking and well-managed practice

EvalMENA workshop
@Davies

Spotlight on Fundamentals of Evaluation: foundations for clear-thinking and well-managed practice

A workshop by Ian C Davies, Credentialed Evaluator (CE) 

The aim of this EvalMENA pre-conference workshop was to take participants through a journey of reflection and deep thinking around the fundamentals of evaluation.

This particular type of reflection is something that evaluation practitioners should regularly set aside time to do, as it is difficult to think deeply when fully involved in day-to-day work. As our practice develops, we should then take time to re-focus on particular aspects of evaluation and its distinctive features, in order to continuously nurture our evaluation knowledge and practice.

Evaluation is confronted with a set of other practices (such as performance audits, evaluative research, etc.) whose boundaries may appear blurry, especially to those who are not directly involved. Further, we also need to be aware of language bias: in some contexts, evaluation is understood as an individual performance assessment, creating misunderstandings that can affect the evaluation process.

As evaluators, we need to have a clear understanding of the distinctive features of our practice and be able to explain clearly the different aspects of evaluation in an easy and straightforward way. In a nutshell, we should be capable to clarify the value that evaluation creates in a 2-minute “elevator pitch” presentation. Are we able to convince a generic taxpayer that her money is used for a good reason?

At the core of evaluation is evaluative thinking, which should permeate the whole evaluation practice. Evaluative thinking can be defined as evidence-informed judgement: we need evidence to assess and make a judgement on the intended value of the programmes/interventions or policies which we are evaluating, but evidence alone is not evaluative in nature. 

Evaluation brings in theoretical and value foundations that are to be made explicit and which in turn influence the approach taken by the evaluation itself, that is, defining the set of value frames and constructs applied in the evaluation (from DAC criteria to gender and equity-based approaches etc.).

Another distinctive feature of evaluation is that it considers unintended effects, both positive and negative, in addition to the results achieved, and, as in other practices, evaluation is a political process that establishes power relations that we should be aware of when conducting our work.

It is important to note that the value of the process of evaluation is often underestimated. The engagement of stakeholders and the opportunity to “give voice” are key aspects that directly influence the generation and the use of knowledge from the evaluation. Engagement is based on communication, which is a two-way process and is not to be confused with the final reporting. Indeed, evaluation reports are actually read by very few people, so counting on reporting uses to determine the benefit of an evaluation would be misleading! On the contrary, it is engagement and continuous communication with stakeholders throughout the evaluation process that help to develop ownership on the findings and whichlead to action.   

How can evaluation help in addressing the Agenda 2030 challenges? In line with the complexity of the global challenges ahead of us, the answer may not be so straightforward. What is certain is that evaluation needs to evolve and adapt, to expand approaches and techniques and open up to new frameworks, in order to help us to ask relevant questions and obtain informative answers. From accountability and learning, evaluation is called upon to take an action standpoint for sustainability, freedom and justice, to contribute to a better world.

The challenge for the evaluation community will be to translate this vision into practice, to expand the relevance and recognition of evaluation in the years to come.