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Policy Advocacy Evaluation in Turbulent, Disrupted Times (or “The Loneliness of the Embedded Advocacy Evaluator”) Part I by Chris Stalker

Hello. I’m Chris Stalker of Oxfam America with the first of a two-part series on policy advocacy evaluation. I was recently nearing the end of an internal presentation of a contested policy advocacy and campaign review, when a senior Director reflected: “I disagree. These findings sound like alternative facts to me.”

This got me thinking: given the profound, disruptive public and political contextual changes we are experiencing (and forgive the self indulgence here) are advocacy evaluators an endangered species in a post-truth world?

Lesson Learned:

First, let’s step back for a moment. As a discipline, policy advocacy evaluation has grown exponentially in the past twenty years. Arguably, attempts to understand this evolution have not kept pace with this relatively rapid growth.

My own experiences of this began as a campaigner based in Oxfam’s campaigns department in the mid-1990s, sitting in strategy meetings, testing each other asking: “How do we know we’re making a difference? What tactics should we be doing more of, and which less of? What are the meaningful signs of progress? What about campaigning and impact – the changes in people’s lives – question?

In my experience, campaign and advocacy evaluation grew from the inside out.

Any organisation undertaking advocacy and campaigning must have an interest in understanding what has changed, its significance, and their own contribution to it, as well as to which their ways of working, the activities undertaken, and strategic approaches followed were optimum in advancing towards progressive policy and social change.

However, the changes we have sought these past two decades have – generally – been of the incremental and technical policy kind, rather than striving for significant transformational socio-political change. Understandably, the evaluation ‘community’ has modelled its responses and interventions to reflect these type of changes, both incremental and technical.

In fact, the transformational socio-economic and political change is coming from the political hard right; from regressive populist nationalists, rather than progressive internationalists. And it’s happening as a set of systemic shocks in ways that we, in the NGO sector, didn’t anticipate particularly well (for reasons I won’t go into here). As a consequence, rather than seeking change, we are campaigning and organizing to protect, maintain and defend policy and political gains, from changing policy to saving democracy, and discussing how to assess what levels of success might look like.

What are the consequences for advocacy evaluation of political turmoil and uncertainty? How do we effectively respond to this scale of disruption and turbulence? To what extent are organizations that are already disrupted and unsettled, likely to be open to hearing some of the more challenging, awkward evaluative questions that may need to be asked?

In almost 30 years working in advocacy and campaigning I’ve never felt less confident about ‘how change happens’ than I do now. So I’m testing some of this, perhaps hoping others can build on organically and iteratively. This is why we have proposed an AEA conference session on this issue where foundations, southern CSOs and INGOs can share some of their perspectives and ideas.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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