What is program evaluation?

Oh my goodness, where to begin!  Program evaluation has a rich history across disciplines and fields of practice.  When drafting this post I thought to myself, “How do I fit this all into 450 words or less?”  and then I realized I didn’t have to!  This website can a journey in uncovering the wonders of program evaluation and assessment.

But I would like to offer a bit of a framework to get things started…

Program evaluation is systematic and intentional

Inquiry is important and necessary, but we must apply a set of rules to that process.  My favorite way to describe evaluation is “intentional.”  It says so much not only about the process, but also the mindset.  Intentionality, for me, goes a step beyond “thoughtfulness” and incorporates a bigger picture analysis.  How will this approach influence the data collected?  What are the deficits of this methodology?  What implicit biases are operating right now?  How can I best reduce their influence?

Intentional and systematic work also implies purpose.  Which is just such a loaded concept.  What does it mean, to do something with purpose?  Paying attention helps us see where we’re operating on auto-pilot and asks us “why?”  I love this because it helps me feel like a beginner – keeps me on my toes!

Program evaluation focuses on improvement and growth

Lots of folks might think evaluating something results in a grade or truth – I don’t like to think of it that way.  Whenever I facilitate an evaluation training, I like to remind folks that we can’t coach ourselves.  External feedback and perspective serves us in our quest to be stronger or better or more confident.  Improvement doesn’t mean we were deficient; it means we have untapped potential!

Program evaluation supports positive social change

I work in a violence prevention movement and I like to tie all of my work – professional and personal – to positive social change.  Evaluation helps us highlight where change is possible – it is like a roadmap that changes as we do.

Once you do away with the idea of people as fixed, static entities, then you see that people can change, and there is hope. – bell hooks

While I can see how some might say, “Well, you were an activist first, that’s why you see evaluation this way.”  You’re right.  But I don’t see that as a deficit – it’s a bias, for sure – I see it as a way to elevate practice to better serve communities.


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