September 6th, 2019
It isn’t a secret that program evaluation gets a bad rap.
In my day-to-day work, it’s common for program staff I come across to involuntarily roll their eyes or tense up by just hearing the term “program evaluation”. And honestly? After seeing staff in many organizations struggle to comply with harsh mandates from internal and external stakeholders to collect program data that may or may not have meaning to the program staff collecting them…. I am not surprised by this reaction.
As someone deep in this field of work, I’ve always felt a mix of empathy and frustration at this experience. How can we ease this tension, this uneasiness, this love/hate relationship with this important work?
I was inspired to think about this topic thanks to a wonderful talk I attended by program evaluation pioneer Dr. Michael Quinn Patton. He shared an informal study he completed on how people felt about program evaluation. The study asked participants to choose a photo that most closely matched their feelings toward program evaluation. Unsurprisingly (and unfortunately) the picture most people picked was of one person carrying an unbearable and unwieldy load of papers up a steep hill.
Dr. Patton put in plain terms what most of us in this field already know: most people still see program evaluation as an uphill battle. A burden. A hassle.
This got me thinking about how we can reverse this trend.
What if it’s not program evaluation that’s the problem – what if it’s just our perception of it?
Perhaps that explains why while we are seeing more and more position descriptions that describe (or directly state) that a key component of their work will be program evaluation, at the same time we are seeing less titles that incorporate the term “program evaluation”. Some common examples I’ve seen include….
What does this mean? Why does there seem to be a love/hate relationship with this important work?
I think that no matter what it’s called, the value of evaluation is undisputed. People understand that that this important work is a powerful opportunity for learning and organizational growth. But unfortunately, because of a bad rap, use of the word “program evaluation” is falling out of style simply because of the poor brand image associated with it.
In the end, do I think program evaluation needs to go through a re-brand? My answer is a resounding NO. The history, brand image, and long-term value goes too deep.
I think a better approach is to work to acknowledge, celebrate, and recognize the critical role program evaluation plays in knowledge acquisition, organizational learning, program improvement, and measuring impact.
Whatever we decide to call it, the connections between program evaluation and the benefits from integrating it into organizational operations are crucial to the ongoing growth and success of programs.
The field has and will continue to evolve. As it grows, new understanding and ways of putting the program evaluation principles into context will emerge that resonate differently with each organization who engages with it.
Whether you call it organizational learning, impact, knowledge management, or anything else, it still falls under the same umbrella of program evaluation. We aren’t going to successfully change program evaluation as a brand, but what we CAN do is try to understand the link between these new position titles and program evaluation as a whole.
Interested in learning more about how you can explore program evaluation at your organization? Feel free to email me anytime – I’d love to help!
Chari accurately captured the fundamental goals and mission of our organization and transformed our input into a clear evaluation process that helps us assess the impact of our programs on the lives of the families that we serve. Now we have an amazing way to measure the physical, emotional, and mental effects of our programs and to guide change, ensuring that we are delivering services in the most effective way possible.Brandi Tuck, Executive Director, Portland Homeless Family Solutions
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