LAWG Week: Introducing: Disempowerment Evaluation by Sarah Mason

Greetings, AEA365 readers! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. To whet our appetites for this year’s conference in beautiful New Orleans, this week’s posts come to us from the feature the perspectives of the Gulf Coast Eval Network (GCEval) members, where the uniqueness of doing evaluation in the gulf south will be on display. Happy reading!

Greetings from Mississippi! I am Sarah Mason, evaluation fan and Director of the Center for Research Evaluation at the University of Mississippi. 

Empowerment, Disempowerment

Over the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the notion(s) of empowerment, disempowerment, and role evaluation might play in enabling these states. A two-week stint in Australia’s hotel quarantine system during 2021 led me to mull over organizational efforts to avoid doing evaluation…a thought exercise which, in, turn led to the notion of disempowerment evaluation. 

Many of us have read a great deal about the idea of empowerment evaluation, but what happens when organizations actually discourage stakeholders from having a say? 

The Value of Evaluation

Beyond its value for decision makers, the opportunity to have a say offers great benefits for those who take part in evaluation. Creating opportunities for stakeholders to provide feedback is a mark of respect—an indication that leaders value the perspectives of participants and are committed to improving their experience.

Having a say increases perceptions of justice and fairness and has been shown to improve individual confidence, creativity and, at times, performance.

When Evaluation Goes Missing

In contrast, the absence of evaluation conveys the message that participant perspectives and experiences are not of value.

For an individual, the absence of feedback opportunities may lead to frustrations, perceptions of unfairness and the view that social organizations do not value those who take part in their programs and policies. These perceptions, in turn, can negatively affect an individual’s sense of self-worth, perceptions of agency and feelings of self-doubt. When individuals know they do not have a voice, they feel a greater sense of procedural unfairness than they do when there are avenues to speak up. In other words, when people have something to say, but know they’re unable to say it, they feel a sense of injustice that would not occur if they were able to speak up.

Silence Hurts

Qualitative research on psychological safety has shown that silence hurts. That is, individuals who wish to speak up but can’t do so report “lingering negative affect” such as ongoing frustration and emotional pain. When individuals cannot contribute their perspectives to the pursuit of a collective effort, their silence takes an emotional toll.

Introducing: Disempowerment Evaluation

In this blog, I’d like to introduce the concept of disempowerment evaluation—the structural avoidance of stakeholder feedback.

What is disempowerment evaluation, you ask? 

I’m suggesting that disempowerment evaluation has three key features: (1) avoidance of stakeholder feedback, (2) obstruction of peoples’ efforts to provide feedback and (3) persistent messaging that dismisses or disparages those who might try to provide feedback.

These three features combine to create a culture of silence in which program participants and stakeholders are, at best, unable to share their perspectives on the program and, at worst, rebuked for attempting to do so.

Both eventualities lead to detrimental effects for the individuals who take part, and ultimately to the broader system.

Rad Resource

To read more about disempowerment evaluation and the structural features that define it, read my recent article in Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation.

Stay tuned for more of my upcoming research exploring strategies for using citizen-led evaluation as a way to empower those in disempowered structures. 

We’re looking forward to the Evaluation 2022 conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). 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 contribute to AEA365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to 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.

2 thoughts on “LAWG Week: Introducing: Disempowerment Evaluation by Sarah Mason”

    1. Thanks Jindra, and thanks for sharing the article. Another reminder about the importance of paying attention to power dynamics in all contexts (and the consequences of those dynamics)….

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.