A Common Conflation: Standards And Guidelines by Jeffrey Hillman

Hello fellow evaluators! My name is Jeffrey Hillman, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation (IDPE) program at Western Michigan University and a member of the Guiding Principles Working Group. I have had the privilege of studying the standards, guiding principles, and evaluation competencies for several years. Most recently, my research on evaluation, supervised by Dr. Michael Harnar and in partnership with Cheryl Endres, has focused on how evaluation standards and guiding principles are used by practicing evaluators to ensure quality in practice. Part of what has been found is that there is confusion between the guiding principles and the evaluation standards, as well as how they were intended to be used. There is a difference between guiding principles and evaluation standards, though the two documents are often conflated in conversation and practice.

There has been significant attention given to the idea of ‘intended use by intended users’ within evaluation. This concept extends to evaluation artifacts created to guide the discipline toward professionalization.  Sanders (1995), a member of the original task force that developed the guiding principles, offered a clear delineation between the intent for the creation and use of each document. He posed that the guiding principles were intended to extend guidance toward ethical practice and to give both the evaluator and the evaluation clients a sense of how the professional evaluator will conduct themselves. This wording remains in the current version of the Evaluators’ Ethical Guiding Principles, where it states they “…are intended as a guide to the professional ethical conduct of evaluators (American Evaluation Association, 2018).”  The Joint Committee program evaluation standards, as adopted by AEA, were created to ensure quality in evaluation activities, artifacts, and overall evaluation practice. The Joint Committee standards include clarifications, guidelines, and benchmarks with the purpose of supporting the ideals of evaluation quality while giving clear guidance through explicit criteria.

Sanders (1995) stated and, more recently, Dr. Michael Morris mentioned in the recent Town Hall on the Evaluators’ Ethical Guiding Principles (available for viewing on AEA’s website) that there is overlap between the documents. The idea of merging the guiding principles and the standards was considered but rejected by the original task force. Because of the many ethical dilemmas that evaluators could face, it was decided to keep the guiding principles clear enough to give explicit guidance while vague enough to be applicable in the various settings and contexts encountered in daily practice.  

I would encourage you to familiarize yourselves with both the Joint Committee Program Evaluation Standards and the Evaluators’ Ethical Guiding Principles. Each, when used with their intended purpose in mind, can give you further warrant and backing when faced with the complexities and challenges of evaluation practice.

Rad Resources:

American Evaluation Association Guiding Principles For Evaluators

Standards and Principles by James R. Sanders; New Directions for Evaluation 1995 issue 66

This post is part of an occasional series on the AEA Guiding Principles. Each post in the series was contributed by a member of the AEA Guiding Principles Working Group. 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.

2 thoughts on “A Common Conflation: Standards And Guidelines by Jeffrey Hillman”

  1. Thanks for this post, Jeffrey! This will be useful reading for my evaluation students as they engage with the guiding principles and program evaluation standards.

  2. Dr. Sondra LoRe

    Great post Jeffrey!
    Thank you,
    Sondra LoRe, Ph.D.
    Manager | National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research (NISER)
    Adjunct Professor | Evaluation, Statistics, and Measurement Program, Department of Educational Psychology & Counseling

    The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
    Office of Research & Engagement
    114 Philander P. Claxton Education Building

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