I spent time this summer writing about evaluation. It’s been good to immerse myself in reading and thinking about what complexity and collaboration mean for how we evaluate public programmes and interventions.
The focus has been Workforce Scotland’s Collective Leadership programme, and they have published ‘Exploring new territories for evaluation’ as the first of a series. Collective leadership builds leadership capacity amongst people working with systemic issues, where it is necessary to work collaboratively and collectively to affect change and where success will depend on the quality of relationships that can be developed. Of course, these conditions apply to lots of us.
One of the influences on the paper is the clear appetite, expressed at the 2018 Firestarter event ‘Reigniting Evaluation’, for different approaches to evaluation, especially those that better reflect deeply held values and avoid creating a culture of ‘gaming’, that’s rooted in fear of failure and loss of funding, at the expense of learning.
The paper is pitched as an invitation to inquiry amongst a reasonably well-informed audience of policy makers and practitioners in public services and those who provide research, evaluation and facilitation support. If you think that might be you, just digest this quote for a moment:
“When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.” (Caitlin Moran, 2017)
If there’s any resonance there, and if you’re looking for some professional nourishment then this might well be for you. A key idea is that relationships are at the heart of practising change. You will almost certainly have heard that before. But how often do we spend the time to really focus on how create the conditions for genuine relational collaboration? Faced with urgent questions about how to act amidst complexity to tackle ‘wicked’ problems, we need help to decide how to act wisely in real-life situations where ‘nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing’. Seeking help, we might talk about “what work’s”, reflecting high expectations of evidence, but too often evaluation has been more of a barrier to transformation than an enabler. We can easily find ourselves overcome by a sense of paralysis or overwhelm at the scale of the challenges.
Drawing on parts of the global family of action research approaches, the paper recasts evaluation as ‘action inquiry’, an embedded evaluative learning practice that can help navigate complexity when enacting collective leadership. Action inquiry can be used to help learning-in-action, wherever success depends on the quality of relationships that can be developed. In developing a model of practising change together that builds-in evaluation, the paper picks up the idea of developing “5th generation evaluation” that explicitly seeks to strengthen working relations and the coordination of actions, built on the recognition that evaluative inquiry is a form of intervention or ‘intervening’ (of getting involved) in itself.
The paper is ultimately quite optimistic, particularly in recognising the place of aspiration, emotions and agency. Most simply, what people truly care about and how they feel about their work or community, whether those are feelings of fear, anger, sadness, satisfaction, excitement or courage; their aspirations and passions – what they most hope to see happen; and their agency – their recognition and regard for others and their ability to inquire with them to enact and embed change.
It doesn’t offer a map or a blueprint, but hopefully some navigation aids that will stimulate your own thoughts and further dialogue. It’s quite a ‘dense read’ and of course, there’s more to say and discuss. The supportive reaction of the first round of reviewers has give me confidence that there will be value for lots of people from diving in.