MESI Week: Donna M. Mertens on Evaluation’s Contribution to Solving Wicked Problems

My name is Donna M. Mertens and I am an independent consultant based in Washington DC; my work is both domestic and international. I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute (MESI) in March 2015. The MESI theme was Social Justice amidst Standards and Accountability: The Challenge for Evaluation. The concept of social justice in the context of evaluation implies that evaluators can play a role in addressing those wicked problems that persist in society, such as violence, lack of access to quality education for all, poverty, substance abuse, and environmental pollution.

Lesson Learned: Wicked problems and Social Justice. Evaluators are concerned and involved in contributing to the solution of wicked problems. They also recognize the importance of bringing a social justice lens to this work. Michael Harnar conducted a survey of 1,187 evaluators and reported that 69% (n=819) either strongly or somewhat agreed with this statement: Evaluation should focus on bringing about social justice.

Rad Resource: Mertens, D.M. editorial: Mixed Methods and Wicked Problems, Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 2015, 9, 3-6. Abstract

Harnar, M. (2014). Developing criteria to identify transformative participatory evaluators. JMDE.

Lesson Learned: Social Justice Lens Leads to Different Evaluation Questions. Evaluators who work with a social justice lens are concerned with the question of program effectiveness and answering the impact question, Did “it” work? They are also interested in asking other types of questions:

  • Was “it” the right thing?
  • Was “it” chosen and/or developed and implemented in culturally responsive ways?
  • Were contextual issues of culture, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, deafness, religion, language, immigrant or refugee status, age or other dimensions of diversity used as a basis for discrimination and oppression addressed?
  • How were issues of power addressed?
  • Do we want to continue to spend money on things that don’t work?

Rad Resource: Native American Center for Excellence published Steps for Conducting Research and Evaluation in Native Communities that provides a specific context in which a social justice lens is applied in evaluation.

Lessons Learned: Social Justice Criteria for Evaluators. Evaluators who work with a social justice lens consider the following criteria to be indicators of the quality of the evaluation:

  • Emphasizes human rights and social justice
  • Analyses asymmetric power relations
  • Advocates culturally competent relations between the evaluator and community members
  • Employs culturally appropriate mixed methods tied to social action
  • Applies critical theory, queer theory, disability and deafness rights theories, feminist theory, critical race theory, and/or postcolonial and indigenous theories

Rad Resource: Reyes J., Kelcey J., Diaz Varela A. (2014). Transformative resilience guide: Gender, violence and educationWashington, DC: World Bank.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating MESI Spring Training Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from evaluators who presented at or attended the Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute Spring Training. 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.

3 thoughts on “MESI Week: Donna M. Mertens on Evaluation’s Contribution to Solving Wicked Problems”

  1. Pingback: The intersection of evaluation, social justice, trauma, and healing | Waking Lumina

  2. Pingback: Nora Murphy on the intersection of evaluation, social justice, trauma, and healing · AEA365

  3. ‘Transformative Research and Evaluation’ (Guilford Press) by Dr. Mertens has been a tremendous resource for me over the past few years. Thank you for this posting.

    Josh Twomey

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