RT&C Week: Building Trust, an Essential Activity for Evaluators by Rakesh Mohan

Namaste! I’m Rakesh Mohan, Director of the Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE). My office is an independent, nonpartisan agency of the Idaho Legislature. OPE’s mission is to promote confidence and accountability in state government. For people to have confidence in government, they need to trust their government officials. Unfortunately, that trust is a scarcity these days.

On the PBS NewsHour on June 12, 2020, columnist David Brooks reflected on current events and said: “If you ask Gen Z: Are most people trustworthy? 65 percent say no… why is that? Because they have been raised in a society they feel has been untrustworthy.” This lack of trust is targeted toward government. News about government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd reflects the public’s, especially the younger generation’s, ever increasing distrust in government.

Despite pervasive distrust, I believe evaluators play an important role in facilitating the public’s trust in government. The first step is to gain the public’s trust in the independent evaluation function and in those who carry out that function. Therefore, building trust is an essential activity for conducting meaningful evaluation work. Trust enables evaluators to better understand context, manage politics, gain buy-in from diverse stakeholders for findings and recommendations, and eventually help make our society a better place for all. My belief is based on my work spanning 17 years in Idaho.

My Story

I moved to Boise, Idaho, in November 2002 to start as the OPE director. I was new to Boise and didn’t know anyone here. Soon after I arrived, I quickly learned that the office was suffering from a lack of trust from policymakers, government officials, advocacy groups, and the press. To succeed, I had no choice but to build relationships and establish trust. As an outsider, I felt that I had to take the first step.

Lessons Learned: These steps helped me earn people’s trust:

  • Display respect and humility. Get to know as many people in your evaluation environment as possible. Show respect regardless of positions or titles, especially those with whom you disagree politically. Displays of respect and humility break barriers to learning, cooperation, and collaboration.
  • Talk less, listen more. By listening to others, we find ways to connect, not only as professionals but as humans. Know that most of us have more things in common than not.
  • Keep your processes and actions transparent. Make sure people in your evaluation environment know your mode of operations. Never blindside them.
  • Avoid using words that shut down conversations before they even begin. Certain words are highly charged with emotion, accusation, partisanship, and parochialism. Once those words are used, conversation stops and distrust takes root.
  • Do not compromise your values. Your credibility rests on your adherence to your personal and professional values. It takes a long time to establish credibility, and restoring lost credibility is nearly impossible.

Rad Resources: The Eastern Evaluation Research Society offers advice from two of my favorite evaluators about the art and role of evaluation:

This week, we’re diving into issues of  Relationship, Trust, & Connection (RTC)  with reflections on the roles they play in evaluation. 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.

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