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Liz Zadnik on Engaging community members in the “Why evaluate?” conversation

Hi all!  Liz Zadnik here, aea365 Outreach Coordinator and occasional Saturday Contributor.  I wanted to share some insights and reflection I had as the result from a recent EVALTALK discussion thread.  Last month, someone posed the following request:

I’m searching for a “Why Evaluate” article for parents/community members/stakeholders. An article that explains in clear and plain language why organizations evaluate (particularly schools) and evaluation’s potential benefits. Any suggestions?

Rad Resources: Others were kind enough to share resources, including this slideshare deck that moves through some language and reasoning for program evaluation and assessment, book recommendations  There is also a very helpful list from PlainLanguage.gov offering possible replacements for commonly-used words.  (Even the headings – “Instead of…” and “Try…” – make the shift seems much more manageable).

Lessons Learned: Making evaluation accessible and understandable requires tapping into an emotional and experiential core.

  • Think about never actually saying “evaluate” or “evaluation.”  It’s OK not to use phrases or terms if they are obstacles for engaging people in the evaluation process.  If “capturing impact,” “painting a picture,” “tracking progress” or any other combination of words works…use it!  It may be helpful to talk with interested or enthusiastic community members about what they think of evaluation and what it means to them.  This helps gain insight into relevant language and framing for future discussions.
  • Have the group brainstorm potential benefits, rather than listing them for them.  Similar to engaging community members in discussion of the “how” is also asking them what they feel is the “why” of evaluation.  I have heard the most amazing and insightful responses when I have done this with organizations and community members.  Ask the group “What can we do with the information we get from this question/item/approach?” and see what happens!
  • Evaluation is about being responsible and accountable.  For me, program evaluation and assessment is about ethical practice and stewardship of resources.  I have found community members and colleagues receptive when I frame evaluation as a way to make sure we are doing what we say we’re doing – that we are being transparent, accountable, and clear on our expectations and use of funds.

We’d love to hear how others in the aea365 readership are engaging communities in accessible conversations about evaluation.  Share your tips and resources in the comments section!

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 “Liz Zadnik on Engaging community members in the “Why evaluate?” conversation”

  1. Hello Liz Zadnik,
    Thank you for your insightful article. Your article widened the horizons of my thoughts about evaluation.
    When we usually think about evaluation, we think about a professional process done by professional people to inform other professionals about an important aspect related to evaluation. Your article made me realize that the community also should know what evaluation is and be part of it and even contribute by expressing their thoughts about it.
    Your “Lesson Learned” is interesting. “Making evaluation accessible and understandable requires tapping into an emotional and experiential core.” It is so interesting that you are connecting evaluation accessibility to emotional and experiential aspects of a human being. In this approach I can see a profound respect to the human being and his/her ability to reason, understand and contribute.
    Your three points are very valuable.

    1. “Think about never actually saying “evaluate” or “evaluation.” ”
    I agree that it is ok not to use technical terms if they may be obstacles and instead to use words that people may understand more. Yes, the language we use should be relevant and should be understood by the people. The provided information should be easily understood by the people so that they can understand the presented topic. Yet, I think that sometimes it will be good to use some technical terms and to explain them so that the members of the community will learn and move a higher and/or a different level in their thinking about a topic. What do you think?

    2. “Have the group brainstorm potential benefits, rather than listing them for them.”
    Yes, the members of the group are able to list valuable points in regard to the potential benefits of evaluation. It is important for the evaluator to listen to them rather than the evaluator listing the benefits to them. People usually have important and creative ideas that come from their own experiences in life. The evaluator who is open to listen to what others think, and in this case the members of the community, has the potential of advancing in his/her career because no single person can have all the information, the insights and the possible creative ideas in the world. Evaluators can benefit and learn from other people around him/her who can have unique and sometimes surprising insights and creative ideas. In this case, the evaluator’s role can be the role of a midwife who helps and enables the members of the community to bring to life their thoughts based on their emotional and experiential core.

    3. “Evaluation is about being responsible and accountable.”
    Definitely, the evaluator should be a person of high moral ethics and integrity. The evaluator should do whatever he/she is saying that he/she is doing. And, the evaluator should use the resources and funds in a transparent ways. Credibility is very important in the evaluation process and the person of the evaluator has a lot to do with it. People will come to trust an evaluator who is transparent and who values and exercises accountability. I think this will lead people to value and trust not only the evaluator but also value and trust the whole evaluation process and give time for it and put efforts in it.
    Thank you again for valuable article. I surely will keep your three points in mind for my future endeavours as an educator and as an evaluator.

    Best Regards,
    Salpi Badakian

  2. Hi Liz,

    Great post. I could not agree with you more. To be honest, I think our evaluation jargon gets in the way of engaging the public and community. Last year I attended the European Evaluation Society Conference in Dublin. The conference was great and I enjoyed the talks on 2015 being the year of Evaluation. Attending the conference made me rethink a lot of things. In particular, from my point of view, I feel that my role as an evaluator is to create societal benefit through inclusive, collaborative and applied research.

    I also left the conference trying to capture the learning. I managed to do it by creating an origami bus. I keep it in front of me at work, asking myself am I like the rest of the world on this bus, am I driving it, or am I sitting in a car looking at this bus.

    As evaluators we must not forget that we are like everyone else in the country we reside in. While we do have research insight and might be able to influence things through our research-we must not forget that we are the common man (or woman) and therefore, ask ourselves how do we experience the world, and are others experiencing it the same way. Through this way of engaging and gauging our perceptions others we will be able communicate things relating to our profession better.

    Keen to hear your thoughts.

    Happy New Year 🙂

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