Where nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing – new territories for evaluation

Greetings from the Faroe Islands.  In my efforts to develop new perspectives on evaluation I’m attending a conference on Communication, Collaboration and Relationships.  This is my annual dose of CPD – like many people from the UK, this is new territory for me and I couldn’t resist the location and the conference aims to ‘increase the motivation and the joy of learning, teaching, leading and serving’ and ‘bring public services into synchrony with emerging world conditions’.  One of the keynote speakers is Ken Gergen who amongst his many writings, articulates a vision of the researcher as an active agent in fashioning the future and research as a form of social action.


This conference was nicely timed as I am hoping to write something to express the shifts in thinking about evaluation that I see emerging shoots of, as I go about my work in Scotland.  I’ve been revisiting the work of Michael Quinn Patton who is a well-known evaluator and former president of the American Evaluation Association.  He’s always an entertaining speaker and last year, he was in Scotland attending the Transformations 2017: Transformations in Practice Conference at the University of Dundee.  Most memorably he said, ‘we are familiar with systems thinking, but we haven’t used it in evaluation’ and went on to describe traditional evaluation as a ‘barrier to transformation’.

I suspect this would resonate with the people who attended the recent 2018 Fire Starter Festival event on Reigniting Evaluation.  Based on the premise that what you focus on becomes your reality, we deliberately focused on our experience of evaluation at its best.  There was a real appetite for evaluation – the generation and use of evidence –  to contribute to transformation within human services.  We know it can happen; we didn’t spend our time commiserating or outdoing each other with horror stories, instead we were future-focused – we identified what values and qualities we’d want to keep and what that would look like.  We talked about what we’d need to let go of and what would help us to discard those things we no longer want.  These aspirations are well expressed here and within these stories are many allusions to the unintended consequences of the way that we have traditionally thought about and practiced evaluation.


There is no doubt of the desire that evaluation should be a tool for learning, to help us develop our practices, collaboration and performance – to do well in our work, to do even better and to learn our way through things when nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing – a bit like the weather in the Faroes.  When we are working with the complexity and messiness of communication, collaboration and relationships, when we are seeking to make the world a better place, we need some new ways of thinking about evidence, that treats evaluation itself as an intervention.   I often hear that ‘it’s all about relationships’  – it is clearly time to change and shift our focus to relationships, to our various and shared visions of a better future and even to play catch-up with ideas about complexity and systems thinking.    More follows soon and at #Faroes18

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