Evaluators’ power and influence are limited. There are several reasons for this situation. One relates to how our craft is framed. We are used to ‘selling’ evaluation/M&E as serving accountability, decision-making, learning and knowledge generation. Yet evaluation is still frequently perceived as something not quite pleasant or useful - in spite of all our ongoing efforts to the contrary (Utilisation-focused Evaluation stems from the 1980s!). It continues to have negative connotations: the notion of “policing”, “something done to us by outsiders”, “insufficient understanding of what we have to deal with”, fear of exposure, and so on.
‘Learning’ actually underpins all the purposes of evaluation. It has become a big industry in recent years, often with few results.
Analyses keep on showing how development planners and implementers repeat mistakes or fall into known traps. And learning is actually not quite as positive a notion as we would like it to be. Few get joy out of being told they have to ‘learn’ – executives, officials and managers in particular can take exception to such a focus.
To be more influential among those with power, it is likely to be more useful to emphasise the framing of evaluation as essential for good decision-making - and here I mean evaluation, not monitoring. Obviously, we need to make sure our work actually supports decision-makers in ways that are useful.
This is an important topic, but beyond the scope of this blog post snippet.
What I want to raise here is another approach to conceptualising evaluation: Evaluation/M&E framed as part of risk management.
What is risk? It is the possibility that something will occur and adversely affect the achievement of an objective – say, for example, sustainable development. Or, says ISO 31000, it is the effect of uncertainty on objectives.
What is risk management? Wikipedia provides a selection of definitions and brief description: “The forecasting and evaluation of risks together with the identification of procedures to avoid or minimise their impact”.
Or, the “identification, evaluation, and prioritisation of risks followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimise, monitor, and control the probability or impact of unfortunate events, or to maximise the realisation of opportunities”.
Risk management’s objective is to “assure that uncertainty does not deflect the endeavour from the business goals”. Ideal risk management “minimises spending ….. and also minimises the negative effects of risks”.
Why then can evaluation/M&E not be articulated, done and used as part of this effort? Both monitoring and evaluation can serve as (very) early warning of things that might go wrong or pose risks to achieving success. They can also point to things that have gone wrong and/or might continue to pose a threat – in other words, that should be attended to in future.
The whole notion of evaluation is to provide insights that can enhance the chance of success, howsoever defined. Promoting evaluation/M&E as part of risk management should be much higher on our agenda.
Positioning it as part of the risk management strategy of organisations, societal groupings or countries will resonate well not only with the private sector - which is increasingly important for development planning and evaluation. It will also resonate well with key government ministries, agencies and organisations that have to try to use resources resourcefully, and minimise loss, inefficiencies and obstacles to success. And perhaps help our craft to get more attention in business and management courses.
Or has this been tried before?
Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator at present based near Geneva. She works primarily in Africa and Asia, and advises organisations around the world. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE and IDEAS Vice-President, AEA Board member, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, and at present Interim Council Chair of the new International Evaluation Academy.