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Can Evaluation Help Make Bureaucracy More Responsive – or is it Part of the Problem? by Burt Perrin

Hello, AEA365 community! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. This week is Individuals Week, which means we take a break from our themed weeks and spotlight the Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources and Lessons Learned from any evaluator interested in sharing. Would you like to contribute to future individuals weeks? Email me at AEA365@eval.org with an idea or a draft and we will make it happen.

Hi, I’m Burt Perrin, and I’d like you think about bureaucracy – its strengths, weaknesses, and what this means for evaluation.

Bureaucracy is complex. It is essential to democracy – while at the same time presenting many challenges. Evaluation has the potential to aid bureaucracies in being more responsive and effective – but also with the potential to acerbate the situation.

Bureaucracy, with all its complexities and contradictions, provides much needed stability and provides for no less than the rule of law, and can provide at least some protection from corruption and misuse of power. Despite its flaws and limitations, bureaucracy as a structure plays an essential function, indeed serving as a bulwark for democracy.

Bureaucracy is at its best in reasonably stable and predictable contexts. Conversely, it may be slow to adapt to quickly changing circumstances and needs. But the world is changing at an increasingly rapid rate – are bureaucracies able to adapt quickly enough to new needs and realities?

Rules and procedures are basic to bureaucracy. But these can be rigid and inflexible and, too often, may take on a life of their own, with the original rationale for these forgotten, and often creating significant unintended consequences.

With a focus on rules and procedures, bureaucracies are inherently focused on process rather than on outcomes, which is inconsistent with and may even sabotage, what is generally recognized as the need for a more results/outcome-oriented approach to public service.

Bureaucracies around the world increasingly are being viewed as inflexible, unresponsive, and more concerned with their own preoccupations rather than the needs of their citizenries. This has contributed to increased cynicism about government, and worse.

Addressing these challenges – Can evaluation help?

Following are steps that evaluators might take to help bureaucracies adapt to change and to be more responsive.

  1. Distinguish bureaucracy as a structure from bureaucratic practices. It is quite appropriate to question – and to evaluate – the ongoing relevance and appropriateness of all bureaucratic practices, including the variety of rules and requirements. As evaluators, we should not be afraid to ask difficult questions, including, challenging questionsabout the relevance, effectiveness, and potential unintended effects of bureaucratic processes, rules and requirements that often seem exempt from evaluative attention.
  2. Highlight the importance of a focus on outcomes rather than on processes. This is something that governments say they want and that evaluators should be good at! But it still can go against traditional bureaucratic thinking. 
  3. Guard against bureaucratic capture by the bureaucracy. While evaluation has the potential to aid bureaucracies in being more responsive, relevant, and effective, this is not guaranteed, and there is a risk of evaluation being part of the problem, such as when it internalizes modes of thinking, assumptions, and approaches of the organization and as a result may fail to ask important even if uncomfortable questions.
  4. Distinguish between evaluation and monitoring. Monitoring assumes the appropriateness of objectives and indicators. But evaluation, in contrast, should question these. It can be all-too-easy, however, to fall into this trap, such as with most results-based management approaches.
  5. Employ a flexible, adaptive approach that is suitable for evaluation of complex initiatives in an uncertain, unpredictable, and changing context.

Rad Resource:

Considerations such as the above are explored in a recent book: Changing Bureaucracies: Adapting to Change, and How Evaluation Can Help (Burt Perrin and Tony Tyrrell, eds.). Available here, use code AEA20 for AEA member discount.

Burt Perrin (Burt@BurtPerrin.com), formerly from Canada and currently living in France, has been engaged in evaluation internationally for many years, for example as a leader and founding member of the CES, EES, and AEA. He has authored another AEA365 blog post about the backfire effect.

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