The Emergence of Participatory Evaluation

Whatever else it does, conventional evaluation generally does not aim to make a positive impact on a project while the project is underway, except in cases of interim evaluations of multiyear projects. Generally, it records outcomes for a particular audience of decision makers.

Programs to fight poverty, to teach the uneducated to read, or to support rural community efforts to survive all receive the scrutiny of evaluators. Such evaluations generally result in reports that are inaccessible to the stakeholders in the programs, either because they are kept confidential or they are written in such a way as to be difficult for most nonprofessionals to understand. They also usually are not framed in actionable ways so that even the recommendations are rarely framed in ways immediately useful to the local stakeholders. They are more suitable for funder and oversight organization use.

Evaluations conducted in this fashion often have a negative effect on local participants and their autonomy as intelligent individuals. They have little say in regard to what is evaluated, how it is done, and how to make sense of the results. They are treated as the informants for the evaluators, placing them in a passive relationship to the outside and “expert” evaluators. This is because one of the most basic tenets of conventional evaluation is that the essence of eval­uation is the professional evaluator’s own judgment of the outcome (Scriven, 1995). The cornerstone of the profession, in this view, is to make neutral and objective judgments of the activities under evaluation.

PE rejects this detachment and disconnection as necessary, possible, or desirable. Some professional evaluators became concerned that conventional evaluations are only related to the needs ofpower holders and not to the needs of the local stakeholders. They also noticed that their evaluations had no local impacts other than on their own bank accounts. As a result, some reframed their professional positions and brought about the creation of PE.

This transition has been vitally important because it converts evaluations into organizational development processes that could help the stakeholders achieve improved performance on dimensions that matter to them. Stated another way, some evaluation moved away from the “court of accountability” to the engaged, value-based commitment to local program development. For this to happen, evaluators had to become involved with the stakeholders in a program or activity and accordingly have taken on a professional role as an engaged actor rather than a distant and objective judge.

The first strong voice in the evaluators’ camp for this position was Ernest House (1972, 1993), who began an ethical discussion in evaluation. According to House, the different stakeholders in an evaluation having different power positions would obviously not have aligned interests. House presented evalua­tion as a process in which different stakeholders’ or recipients’ diverse values, foci, and capacities require that the evaluator move from the position of the distant observer to an involved and engaged collaborator, and this opened the way for participatory evaluations.

We should not overstate the presence of PE. Conventional evaluation, the modality of the vast bulk of evaluations, still carries on business with a rudi­mentary relationship to participation. For example, Michael Scriven’s fourth edi­tion of the Evaluation Thesaurus in 1991 does not even mention participation.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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