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.

9 thoughts on “RT&C Week: Building Trust, an Essential Activity for Evaluators by Rakesh Mohan”

  1. Hi Rakesh,

    Thank you for sharing your story and passion for building trust in your role as an evaluator. I am currently taking a Program Inquiry and Evaluation course through Queens University and this is my only real experience learning about the evaluation process. As someone new to this field, your article is clear, helpful and relevant to today’s world and I really appreciate that. As an elementary school teacher, I connect to the importance of building relationships and trust with my students, their parents and my colleagues, I know this isn’t always easy but can have a strong impact.

    In today’s political climate I imagine this task is even more challenging and important to focus on. You mention always showing respect especially with those you disagree with politically and I can understand how important and powerful this would be. I wonder if you have any further advice on how you build trust with someone or an organization with whom you may have very different political beliefs from while still maintaining your own core values?

    I think this is an excellent topic to be discussed and we are lucky to have evaluators working towards building relationships and trust with the public and people involved in evaluations.

    Thank you,

  2. Noor Mohammed-ali

    Hi Rakesh,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post about building trust in evaluation. I am Noor, a student in the PME program from Queen’s University, Canada. I found your post to be concise and thoughtful. You mentioned that “trust is an essential activity for conducting meaningful evaluation work”. I agree with this statement as trust allows participants of the evaluation to feel more comfortable with the evaluation process as well as have a sense of security with the evaluators, thereby enhancing the evaluation experience. Additionally, in your article you discussed tactics you used to build trust; one being “Keep your processes and actions transparent”. Could you expand on this recommendation? While I agree that evaluators must communicate openly and truthfully, I am uncertain of the extent they should go to achieve this. From your experience, do you think evaluators have to keep participants ‘in the loop’ during each step of the evaluation? You mentioned that it is important to make sure “people in your evaluation environment know your mode of operations”. What does mode of operations encompass in an evaluation process?

    Thanks again for your insightful post, looking forward to your response.

    1. Hello Noor. Thank you for the reply. I will try to answer the three questions you asked. Feel free to contact me via email or phone (available from the website) if you have further questions.

      Keep your processes and actions transparent.
      Our office website (https://legislature.idaho.gov/ope/) tells a lot about our process: who requests an evaluation, how evaluation projects are selected, what standards we use, all evaluation reports are public, staff are nonpartisan, and staff disclose conflicts of interest on each project.

      Keep participants ‘in the loop’ during each step of the evaluation.
      Participants/stakeholders are kept informed about the evaluation scope, approach, and methodology. Their help is sought in designing survey and focus groups. The entity/program we evaluate gets to conduct a technical review of our report draft and their feedback help us revise the draft. We also ask the entity and the governor to provide their formal responses to our evaluation; those responses become part of the final report.

      What does mode of operations encompass in an evaluation process?
      We make sure policymakers, stakeholders, program officials, the press, and the public know that we are an independent, nonpartisan evaluation office. Our working papers, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are confidential during the conduct of the evaluation — i.e., such information is not shared with the public, the press, policymakers, lobbyists, and advocacy groups until the final report is released at a public meeting.

  3. Kaitlin Therrien

    Hi Rakesh,
    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. As you mention, society has become increasingly distrusting, particularly toward the government. I have personally witnessed this via posts and comments on various social media platforms. While I think there is value in critical assessment, a lack of trust can certainly be detrimental.

    I agree that building trust is a crucial component of evaluation work and reading about your personal journey is a great example of how this can be accomplished. You have laid out some simple, yet meaningful, ways to earn the trust of those we work with throughout the evaluation process. I really enjoyed your advice to “talk less, listen more” and I think this is a wonderful idea to apply in all areas of life. Attentively listening shows the speaker that we respect their time and ideas, and also allows us to gain a deeper understanding of their message.

    I think keeping processes and actions transparent can go a long way to build trust, and is another way to show respect to your evaluation community. Transparency may also help stakeholders/participants in evaluation feel more involved and more invested in the process.

    Thank you for sharing these rad resources – I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Eleanor Chelimsky interview. She has such a depth of knowledge and experience, and her passion for evaluation shines throughout the interview. As someone who is just learning about program evaluation, I appreciate adding excellent resources such as these to my repertoire.

    1. Thank you Kaitlin for the response. I’m glad you emphasized the word “respect” in your response. Respect and humility go together.

      I’m a big fan of Eleanor Chelimsky and George Grob. I continue to learn from them about both evaluation and life. Here is a post about my conversation with Eleanor:

      You may also like an article by George Grob:
      How to Become an Effective Advocate Without Selling Your Soul
      American Journal of Evaluation, vol. 3, 2014, 391-397

  4. Hello Rakesh,

    Thank you for sharing your story! When reading your blog all I could do was nod my head in agreement. I am currently in my Master of Education and am currently enrolled in a course called “Program Inquiry and Evaluation.” I am nearing the end of the course and I can truly see the importance of building a relationship before beginning an evaluation.
    In a part of the course we learned about participatory approach in evaluation and how it improves the evaluation. The approach wouldn’t work well without building a relationship with the stakeholders of the program. As you state in the blog it is essential to build a relationship in order for the people to want to take the data collected and implement it into the program. The steps you have mentioned to earn the people’s trust within the community that you moved to are helpful as well. They each hold an importance to building that trust.

    Last year was my first year of teaching and it was a long-term occasional (LTO) position. These positions can sometimes be difficult as students tend to see LTOs as supply teachers. They had multiple LTO teachers in the position I took over and I could see the students lost trust with the French teachers. I had to start building relationships with over 200 students right away to allow for my classroom to be a safe and respectful environment. The steps I took to gain their trust was first, introducing myself and playing an ice breaker game where I got to know them. The next step I took was letting them introduce themselves to me by playing a game or presenting information about themselves; I let them choose. The next step was creating rules and norms of the classroom with my students to allow for them to feel included. Then final step was consistently building the respect between the students and I.

    Thanks again for sharing your story! It has solidified so much for me that building relationship truly assists with creating buy-in, whether as a teacher or as an evaluator.


    1. Thank you much, Taylor. I totally agree with you that building relationship is also critical when working with your students. I like your final step of building the respect.

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