EPE TIG Week: What We Talk About When We Talk About Environmental Program Evaluation by Greta Landis

Hi there! My name is Greta Landis and I’m an Evaluation Specialist at the Natural Resources Institute, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension. I’m also Co-chair of the Environmental Program Evaluation TIG.

At the last two Eval Reimagined virtual conferences, our TIG was thrilled to see new faces from a wide range of sectors, backgrounds, and interests at our business meetings. As we look toward the (re)shaping evaluation together conference this fall, we thought we’d take a moment to distill the big themes we’ve heard in environmental program evaluation discussions over these last few years and identify a few priorities for ourselves. Keep in mind this is just a brief summary of the main questions, concerns, and ideas we’ve heard from you all, but we hope it can be a starting point for those just getting into the field.

What are the biggest priorities for environmental program evaluation?

Equity and justice are, unsurprisingly, at the heart of our discussions on climate change adaptation and resilience. As we identify strategies to change patterns of land use, consumption, and policies in the programs we support, we need to constantly check whose needs are addressed. Moving away from a scarcity mindset about resources to one of care and cooperation relies heavily on indigenous knowledge and systems of organization. We can demonstrate the links between equity and environmental health by amplifying (and compensating) the priorities of community leaders and cross-sector coalitions.

What are the biggest challenges in environmental program evaluation?

We frequently hear that reconciling the scope, timelines, and budgets of projects with the urgent, interconnected, long-term goals of environmental change feels nearly impossible. Developing generalizable frameworks and tools to measure environmental change is incredibly difficult when the needs are so context- and ecosystem-specific. However, we have the opportunity to reject notions of environmental conservation and land use that are rooted in white supremacy to prioritize multifunctionality, relationality, and decentralized power in our evaluation planning.

What does this time call for from environmental program evaluation?

Hot Tips

  1. ACTIVE LEARNING: Knowledge co-production creates shared understanding of ecological problems and the most feasible and desirable solutions for the communities affected by them. Building in reflective practice to respond to emerging issues or opportunities, participatory development of program theory, and meta-evaluation to assess the usability of our work, are critical to that process.
  2. ADVOCACY: As evaluators, we can shape funding and program structure with meaningful community input, and use that input to address multiple facets of the same issues. Even when our work doesn’t feel directly connected to making change on the landscape, we have more power than we think to listen and to highlight the importance of community environmental needs.
  3. FLEXIBILITY: Methodologies from principles-focused, developmental, transformational, and Blue Marble evaluation, among others, present us with usable strategies to identify needs and measure emergent outcomes as programs evolve. As Dr. Richard Krueger once noted, “Compared to failed implementation, listening is cheap.” Building flexibility into evaluation planning allows programs to pivot as the needs of participants change.
  4. SYSTEMS-THINKING: Making connections across fields and sectors will be essential to the success of environmental program evaluation. We need to demonstrate the links between issues like health, education, and climate, as well as making our reporting accessible to individuals in other fields, is key to addressing multidimensional crises.

Thanks for reading! We want to hear from you—what tools, processes, or language would help you bring environmental advocacy to your work? What would you like to see from this TIG and from AEA?

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our EPE TIG members. 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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