Transforming Evaluations and COVID-19, Part 2. Repositioning evaluation

In my view elevator speeches that present evaluation as something done for “learning”, “improving”, “generating knowledge” or “being accountable” belong to the past. COVID-19 is part of humanity’s footprint on Earth, part of the Anthropocene. It is going to force us to position evaluation in new spaces, in new ways, as something more powerful and useful, and in ways that reflect the spirit and needs of this era.

COVID-19 will destroy, but will also bring new opportunities for those who thrive on challenge and change.

If evaluation is now to serve as GPS for difficult terrain, we will have to focus increasingly scarce financial and intellectual resources to where it can be most useful for large-scale change. To understand how this can best be done, we need to use and further develop frameworks and ways of working for this purpose.

As I noted in my previous post, evaluation as societies’ or decision-makers’ or policy-makers’ GPS can provide credible, immediate, context-sensitive direction, lower risk, inform decisions about the best course of action, and show preferred as well as less appropriate options based on analysis of evidence and experience. Despite some in-built biases and occasional lack of precision, a GPS is today essential to get to desired destinations. So should be evaluation if it is well positioned among potential users.

We have to rethink evaluation’s value proposition and how we can give more power to our elevator speeches. Leaders, decision-makers and change-makers at all levels and domains should see evaluative practice as something to

  • manage risk
  • make better, more defensible, more integrated strategies and decisions, especially in times of uncertainty and crisis
  • help explain and defend plans and actions
  • think critically and confidently about their own performance
  • increase the chance of success in desirable directions
  • find realistic, actionable solutions for long-term benefit
  • help enable catalytic or systems or transformational change, from micro to macro scale
  • develop and share theoretical and practical insights that can help nudge systems towards desirable changes, transitions and transformations.

We will need different narratives about evaluation and ‘development’. Different approaches to power. Different theories and practices. Different evaluation criteria and questions. Different sources of financing. Different positioning in the world of work and in academic institutions. Different curricula and modules. Probably also, in many instances, different types of professionals.

Of course, not different in all respects; much of what exists is good and useful. Michael Quinn Patton’s Blue Marble Evaluation is an example of a solid recent movement towards a new paradigm, aptly preceded by Developmental Evaluation and Principles-Focused Evaluation. Recently we have Osvaldo Feinstein’s Dynamic Evaluation. Donna Mertens’ Transformative Evaluation based on the human perspective. Pawson and Tilley’s older Realist Evaluation. Many systems-informed methodologies and methods remain relevant; outcome mapping, contribution analysis, ripples tracing, social network analysis and outcomes harvesting are only some. Indigenous evaluators have brought important new narratives, framings and methods to the fore.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, Space-X and Neuralink (and earlier a co-initiator of PayPal) was born in South Africa, although he now resides in the US. He is most certainly one of the most visionary doers of our generation. In his new book he notes how he uses feedback loops – “that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could have done things better and questioning yourself.” He seeks the feedback of others, and urges entrepreneurs to seek “preferably negative” feedback. He hires the best people in any field who can provide consistent and truthful feedback. He notes that shortening the feedback loops leads to “increased efficiency, faster implementation and a better-finished product”. All of this reflects a strong belief in the value of a certain type of evaluative practice by one of the smartest, most innovative and successful entrepreneurs in the world.

I look forward to having the global evaluation community give our best to make sure that evaluative practice lives up to its potential – however we wish to define that at a certain moment in a certain context.

In my next blog posts and in upcoming vlogs I will write and talk about the practicalities of using evaluation in support of systems and transformational change.

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Zenda Ofir

Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator. Based near Geneva, she works across Africa and Asia. A former AfrEA President, IOCE Vice-President and AEA Board member, she is at present IDEAS Vice-President, Lead Steward of the SDG Transformations Forum Evaluation for Transformation Working Group, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, Germany.

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