Hey everyone! I’m Greta Landis, an Evaluation Specialist at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Extension, and a Co-Chair of the Environmental Program Evaluation TIG.
Environmental evaluation faces some complex and urgent challenges as we work to assess initiatives in environmental education, conservation, restoration, and cultivation. Reconciling short project timelines and limited budgets with long-term, large-scale ecological change while also bringing together groups from different sectors and backgrounds with different priorities and vocabularies can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, Michael Quinn Patton’s Principles-Focused Evaluation provides a set of useful tools to increase the cohesion, communication, and evaluability of complex, adaptive projects in a changing climate.
I’ve been working with two different USDA-funded initiatives from the Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) program over the last two years. Both are Midwestern university-led research and education grants working with growers, business representatives, lenders, nonprofits, and conservation groups to identify and create ways to transform agricultural systems to be more resilient, perennial, equitable. While both projects are ongoing, the process of drafting, revising, and iterating project principles with the evaluation teams has provided space to discuss shared terminology, reflect on the processes, plans, and power dynamics, and set intentions.
- Start with shared interests and existing resources: Developing a set of principles using Michael Quinn Patton’s GUIDE framework has been a useful wayto facilitate conversations about group values with both projects, but there’s no need to start from scratch. One group used the Agroecology Research-Action Collective’s list of principles and protocols as a starting place discuss what genuine, inclusive, transformative collaborations look like. The other scoured racial equity frameworks to develop their own centered on learning, mutually beneficial relationships, use of project resources, and transparency in their activities.
- Principles aren’t just for evaluators: Principles provided a set of core ideas to evaluate project activities when work is complex, iterative, and adaptive, but also provide context for project team members, shape communication strategies (both internally and externally), establish group norms, and help guide engagement with stakeholders and collaborators.
In short, principles and the process of developing them can be a valuable group exercise to discuss project systems, strengths, terminology, and theory of change. My colleague Courtney Bolinson also wrote a piece about the principles process with one group, which will be released as part of a primer on Developmental Evaluation later this spring. You can learn more about each project and their goals for transforming and perennializing our agroecosystems here and here.
Happy Earth Week!
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