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Authors: Tom Ling, May Pettigrew and Lauren Weiss

In such turbulent times of baffling crises, contradiction and uncertainty, we – as an evaluation community – should come together, debate and agree on new ways of doing our professional work to better respond to the global challenges of environmental degradation, social and economic inequities, and political unpredictability.

The problem is not just that as evaluators, hoping to work in the service of the public good, we too infrequently demonstrate our beneficial consequences. But now, doing good through better evaluation just got harder.

To be sure, the field of evaluation has always evolved to embrace the complexity, interdependencies and systemic nature of public interventions. But by and large, we are still constrained by policy actions, which are in turn limited by their remit and rigid bounded areas of intervention, and are all too often conceived in terms of definable causes and predictable effects.

But the dynamics of globalisation and the current turbulence are no longer amenable to boundary thinking. As COVID-19 shows, what may start as a public health crisis has quickly evolved to have economic, cultural and social cascading effects, on both local and global levels.

We face many such new problems, but given how evaluation is funded, managed, delivered and received, we are not always well equipped to deal with them. Government responses thus far to everything from COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and climate change demonstrate that existing policy frameworks are ill-suited to such interconnected, complex processes.

Relying on pre-existing assumptions to turn new problems into known foes (re: framing Black Lives Matter as a culture war, rather than a reaction to systemic inequality), or the inability to connect the massive and complex drivers of change to the traditional levers of power available to them (e.g. in the fight against climate change), have meant that governments’ seemingly good intentions fall flat. This is a gap that evaluation should be helping to bridge.

On the other hand, not everything is new – our aim remains to produce technically robust evaluations, which are relevant to the needs of society, and are communicated in ways that make sense and are helpful to those involved. Evaluation is not here to solve these on its own. However, evaluators have been thinking deeply about what they might contribute to how we as a society address these grand challenges.  Many, indeed, are calling for a transformation of evaluation that will in turn more effectively facilitate positive transformational change across our societies. (see recent publications and blogs by, for example, Oswaldo Feinstein, Zenda Ofiir, Michael Quinn Patton, Ernest House, IDEAS, etc.). Featured elements in these debates include the need to:

  • Accept moral responsibility as interlocutors among complex power relationships with a concern for justice and fairness, rather than narrow political preferences, and engage participants and stakeholders as co-creators of the evaluation underpinned by values of Deliberative Democracy;
  • Evaluate from a perspective that looks at the wider context of system interdependencies, interactions and synergies. Evaluation should not shy away from complexity and scale, as many global challenges can only be addressed at massive scale, challenging conventional funding arrangement and conventional evaluation designs and moving from focusing on projects to policies;
  • Invoke greater interdisciplinary work in evaluation, including natural and social sciences. Evaluation should be able to tap into significant developments in data science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology and so forth;
  • Interrogate, and not simply take for granted, the unstated assumptions that underpin initiatives;
  • Be strategic and coordinated within and across sectors;
  • Increase the windows for policy dialogue and decision-makers’ demand for dynamic evaluations with a systemic reach;
  • Embed evaluation to work alongside implementing teams and in real time;
  • But at the same time, be humble – our job includes helping reveal promising approaches that are already happening, rather than to lead them.
EES Online Events Programme

In the light of challenges facing evaluation and the opportunities they present for re-invigorating our role and practice,  EES will be mounting a series of online events over the coming year and in advance of the EES 2021 biennial conference 6-10 September, Copenhagen.  The conference theme, and that of our online events, has never been more relevant – “Evaluation in an Uncertain World: Complexity, Legitimacy and Ethics.”

Our online webinar series will encompass two thematic strands:

Strand 1 will feature a small number of keynotes by evaluation thought leaders setting out the rationale and steps needed to transform the fundamentals of our role, practice and conduct as evaluators in a world of turbulence. More information on this strand’s kick-off webinar will be shared soon.

Strand 2 is titled “Emerging Data Landscapes in M&E,” and focuses on the contemporary techniques and tools that can help us transform our practice – specifically the tools and approaches better suited to conducting our work in COVID-19 and post COVID-19 times.

In partnership with The Development CAFE,  MERL Tech and World Bank IEG, our first webinar on this topic will be held on Tuesday, 28 July at 15:00 CEST (9:00 EST) on Geospatial, location and bid data: Where have we been and where can we go?

With guest speakers from the World Bank IEG, the European Commission’s DEVCO/ESS, and the Global Environment Facility, this interactive and free webinar will provide concrete examples of using geospatial and location data to improve our M&E practices. It will also discuss the barriers to using such technologies and brainstorm on ways to overcome them by inviting feedback and questions from the online audience.

These two strands constitute an ambitious webinar series, and don’t expect to agree with everything you hear. As a convener and facilitator of evaluation debate, the EES aims to foster discussion that is divergent and diverse, and through this help clarify the scope for defining common principles that can guide the role and practice of evaluation in the future.

Further events are planned for the autumn, and details will be published shortly on our website.