An evaluation agenda for our time

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We are all somehow aware that we are on the cusp of dramatic change in society. A series of revolutionary technology-driven changes are set to have a very fundamental effect on how we live, work, relax and relate to one another. As demonstrated by the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet and the notion of Industry 4.0, the world is getting more interlinked and, as a result, increasingly complex. We are already seeing the effects of disruptive technologies, and further advances in artificial intelligence and the increasing integration and merging of the physical, digital and biological worlds – in other words, the Fourth Industrial Revolution - are likely to provide us with as yet undreamed of opportunities as well as serious challenges. As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum noted, “There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Schwab provides an intriguing analysis of the context within which the ambitions expressed in the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs have to be realised.

He discusses the many potential benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as well as the many real risks. He foresees very significant changes in governance systems and regulations, in business and innovation, in the nature of conflict, and in who we are – our sense of privacy, our health, the predictability of our behaviour, notions of ownership, our cognitive capabilities, consumption patterns, relationships, hierarchies, and many more. Widespread unemployment, an almost inevitable sharp rise in inequality within and across countries (in means, quality of life and power), conflicts based on automated weapons, and new cyber risks are among the many serious threats that he expects might derail development with relative ease.

Schwab argues that world leaders need to put us on a different path, one in which this technology-driven age can indeed “catalyse a new cultural renaissance that will enable us to feel part of something much larger than ourselves – a true global civilisation”, and where humankind uses the Fourth Industrial Revolution to “lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny”.

As already limited resources are being depleted and power shifts, countries and regions are becoming more fiercely competitive. It is therefore easy to predict increasing vulnerability in those countries that most need “development”– in particular the low income countries (LICs) in the Global South - unless they can grasp opportunities for leapfrogging and accelerated development (as achieved with mobile phones and m-pesa, for example) and also generate or improve such technologies themselves. This will not be easy. We need the kind of vision and optimism – and action – advocated by Elsie Kanza in her argument that girls are set to drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa.

If the ambitions of the SDGs are to become reality, we are going to need a realisation of Schwab’s wish for a truly collaborative, empathetic world – or the power of a truly informed, thoughtful and active citizenry (note my emphasis).

The Fifth Wave and evaluation’s first calls to action

The context sketched above gives evaluation enormous potential to do good. We have a unique niche and value proposition in this new era – as long as we prepare for it. Bob Picciotto articulates this very well in his excellent publication, The Fifth Wave, in which he argues for an evaluation profession and practice substantively different from what we have today, one that evolves vigorously and in tune with the challenges before us.

He sees evaluation expanding to all sectors of society, embedded in social processes and management systems, and used for multiple purposes for which it is ideally suited, yet seldom (successfully) used. He challenges the profession to create new approaches and tools; to professionalise appropriately; to break out of silos and segregated evaluation domains; to fully engage with key global trends such as social networking, crowd-sourced learning and big data analysis; and to rethink the models with which we engage with our clients and the intended beneficiaries of our work.

In an upcoming paper Throwing down the Gauntlet, I add to and reinforce some of the points made in the Fifth Wave. I identify a series of overarching lessons from the MDG era that challenge our profession to focus on aspects that have hitherto been too frequently neglected. Attention to these issues will, in my opinion, enhance our value proposition in the eyes of those who have to make development happen.

The Global Evaluation Agenda – a global response

Global Evaluation Agenda 2015
Evaluation historians will one day recognise EvalPartners and the Global Evaluation Agenda 2016-2020 as critical milestones for the evaluation profession around the world. They are great achievements, and present a strong and necessary vision for the global evaluation community.

Yet in spite of – or perhaps because of – the long lists of tactics proposed for our positioning and advancement, I am not convinced that the Agenda 2016-2020 will be effective in inspiring the necessary nuanced action in essential priority areas. Some prioritisation has to be done for systematic, progressive change, whether at or across national, regional or global levels. We have to get certain things right before others will happen.

Private sector innovations and funding flows are going to be crucial drivers of development. Yet we are not well connected into this world, and the tactics proposed in Agenda 2016-2020 do not reflect the importance of, or a sense of urgency in engaging with these new forces. The private sector is mentioned only 15 times, and in every case only as part of a long list of evaluation stakeholders.

If we are to have influence in this space, we will need to understand and work with both big business, including multinational corporations, and the various triple helixes of critical relationships – government, business and academia; and government, business and NGOs (or perhaps all four). We will also have to engage much more vigorously with how networks, coalitions and other forms of networked organisations work within complex adaptive systems, with evaluation methodologies to suit.

“Big data” is mentioned as a concept only twice, and not from a strategic perspective. Yet data-driven interventions based on behavioural patterns derived from big data will be major drivers of development in future.

Finally, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the integration of the physical, digital and biological worlds are going to bring to the fore new and very significant ethical and moral challenges; do evaluators need to take a stance in these, as we tend to do (sometimes rather too glibly, in my opinion) about democracy and human rights, for example?

How will we deal with ourselves in this new era?

Given all of the above, I believe we need to give more nuanced attention to the supply side of evaluation:

First, we should not fixate on the SDGs through conventional aid-tinted lenses. We have to conceptualise the SDGs and the role of evaluation in a world driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is inevitable that the private sector will play increasingly prominent roles in development – not only through impact investing, but through their disruptive and transformative innovations. We need more careful analyses of the implications for evaluation of these trends, and their emerging and potential use to exert great influence on society.

Second, in the Global South in particular, our universities and training efforts in evaluation need to combine current approaches with more forward-looking and adventurous ones. This has to be based on new conceptualisations of the role of evaluation and its relationship with the main drivers of change in this new era. In this process we have to become very serious about both research on evaluation, and about pulling the expertise offered by other disciplines and professions into ours – much as the Japanese have been able to maintain in admirable fashion their very distinct identity, while absorbing from the West and elsewhere that which is positive and advantageous within their own culture and vision of the future.

Third, let us concern ourselves more with the quality of persons who are attracted to evaluation - because of the demands that will be placed upon the profession in future. We cannot afford evaluators and evaluation commissioners who are mediocre or worse. The fact that our cognitively demanding and to some, “glamorous” profession is likely to survive the coming onslaught on jobs is a two-edged sword. We will continue to attract many from other practices and disciplines to join – and many will be mediocre. On the other hand, as the execution of Agenda 2016-2020 continues, we might just succeed in attracting some of the smartest and most innovative, with appropriate values and commitment, and systems thinkers to boot.

Fourth, from my vantage point the evaluation community is largely un(der)prepared for the challenges ahead. Our discourses are far behind those in the corridors of power among the politicians and innovators who are shaping the world. We will need mindsets and skills that differ significantly from, or complement the foundation on which our practice has been based to date. We need to start preparing.

So, inspired by the Fifth Wave and the Global Evaluation Agenda 2016-2020, how can we not be excited about the promises, challenges and opportunities in our profession over the next decades?

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2 thoughts on “An evaluation agenda for our time”

  1. Great blog Zenda, very thoughtful and challenging at the same time. I recently attended a full day workshop developed to bring leaders up to speed with the technological advances and challenges facing us – This workshop was mind blowing and raised many of the issues and questions you address in your blog.
    There is no doubt in my mind that evaluation is more than un(der) prepared for what is coming, rather I would venture that it is ill prepared – and the challenge is becoming greater as we face the need to rapidly ‘refurbish our tool kits’ (as Bob Picciotto argues), and interact, engage and intersect in our work in very different ways – with so many new players, while so many of us have still ’emergent’ and relatively fragile fields in our own lands.
    I too have been rather underwhelmed by the global evaluation agenda and would be interested in your thoughts as to how it is that evaluation could work to face these multiple challenges…? How might we attract people who are smart, innovative thinkers who are strongly ethical, values oriented and politically savvy to our field, when there are so many other enticing options out there?!

  2. Kate, our communication has been inwards – to ourselves and our clients and evaluation stakeholders, with the latter often poorly done. We all need to focus on how we can communicate the true value of our profession to society at large, as well as the true skills set needed, and it is not about “research” (only). We have to create the right type of awareness through popular media and find ways to reach young smart professionals with a message that evaluation is an attractive choice. But most importantly, we need to get evaluation recognised in our academic centres. Universities in most countries do not understand or see evaluation as priority, or a career for “smart” people, with curricula to match. EvalPartners / associations should develop strategies around these two target audiences (society and academia).

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