Memorial Week: Michael Quinn Patton on Remembering U.S. General Accounting Office’s (GAO) Program Evaluation and Methodology Division (PEMD).

This is part of a series remembering and honoring evaluation pioneers in conjunction with Memorial Day in the USA (May 30).

My name is Michael Quinn Patton of Utilization-Focused Evaluation. I have been engaged in evaluation for five decades and from that ancient perspective I have been coordinating and editing this AEA365 In Memoriam series. We have been honoring evaluation pioneers who paved the way for our now flourishing profession. Today I depart from honoring people we have lost to a different kind of loss: pioneering and pace-setting evaluation units that are now deceased but ought not be forgotten.

Today we remember and honor what distinguished evaluator Lee Sechrest, memorialized yesterday in this series, proclaimed as “the jewel in the crown of program evaluation at the federal level for a good many years.”

Pioneering and enduring contributions:

Between 1980 and 1994, Eleanor Chelimsky, as Assistant Comptroller General for Program Evaluation, established and directed the U.S. General Accounting Office’s (GAO) Program Evaluation and Methodology Division (PEMD). The unit was charged with doing evaluations for Congress and improving GAO’s methodological capabilities. With 80 to 100 people, PEMD had between 45 and 50 evaluations under way at any given time, and produced 30 major products annually.

The unit did hugely influential evaluations on programs and policies as diverse as chemical weapons, drinking-age laws, Medicare, medical devices, AIDS education, highway safety, cancer research, taxation, welfare, immigration, and, indeed, the full range of federal initiatives of all kinds. PEMD used established methods rigorously, creatively employed old methods in new ways, and developed and demonstrated ground-breaking approaches in synthesis methods, prospective evaluation, mixed methods, and how to generate rigorous and credible evaluation findings on hugely controversial, contested, and politicized issues. Moreover, former PEMD evaluators have gone on to make stellar contributions to evaluation nationally and internationally.

On June 24, 1996, GAO terminated PEMD after 16 years of operation. It fell victim to a federal hiring freeze and accompanying attrition, a budget squeeze induced by Congress, the loss of its leadership and driving force, Eleanor Chilemsky, and political maneuvering, both within GAO and across federal agencies resistant to independent evaluation. The demise of PEMD was lamented in the American Journal of Evaluation in a special section called Defining Moments which was devoted to rare “watershed events that seem certain to have a dramatic effect on the future of evaluation.” PEMD represented a Golden Age in federal evaluation. Gone, but not forgotten. We await the Evaluation Phoenix.


AEA oral history team (2009). The professional development of Eleanor Chelimsky. American

Journal of Evaluation, 30(2): 232-244.

Grasso, P. G. (1996). End of an era: Closing the U.S. General Accounting Office’s Program

Evaluation and Methodology Division. American Journal of Evaluation, 17(2): 115-117.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Memorial Week in Evaluation: Remembering and Honoring Evaluation’s Pioneers. The contributions this week are remembrances of evaluation pioneers who made enduring contributions to our field. 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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