Welcome to my ramblings on evaluation. I’m Brandon W. Youker, social worker, evaluator, and professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I’ve been thinking about the inculcation of many professionals during their graduate studies where they are taught to equate program evaluation with the assessment of goal-achievement. Students learn about goal-setting and then about things like theories of change and logic models. I don’t deny the legitimacy of these tools for monitoring your own programs, but relying on them as the sole strategy for evaluation leads to partial stories. According to the AEA’s Guiding Principles for Evaluators, evaluators have a responsibility to “consider not only immediate operations and outcomes of the evaluation, but also the broad assumptions, implications and potential side effects”
Some common assumptions regarding goals and some counterpoints follow.
- The goals and objectives of the program funders, administrators, and managers are the ones that matter. What about the consumers’ or other stakeholders’ goals?
- The official goals and objectives are clearly articulated and agreed upon. Often, however, goals and objectives are written by a group of executives and managers. Again, what about the consumers’ goals?
- Goals and objectives are relatively static. So what happens when conditions change? Should the evaluator simply scrap the old goals and adopt new ones or keep irrelevant goals?
- Program administrators—and evaluators—can predict outcomes. Even if they could predict outcomes they tend to search only for positives ones. Goal-based evaluation by design gives little—if any—attention to program side-effects.
Lessons Learned: Program administrators feel that funders want goal-achievement evaluation.
On numerous occasions, I’ve been part of conversations with program administrators that sound something like the following:
Program Administrator: “Look at this but not that.”
Me: “Why not examine that area?”
PA: “Because we aren’t trying to do anything in that area.”
Me: “But isn’t that a critical area? And what if you were doing poorly there, wouldn’t your program suffer?”
PA: “Yes, but our funders don’t give us money to do anything in that area and therefore we don’t intentionally attempt to do anything with it.”
Hot Tip: Explore evaluation tools that don’t dictate goal-orientation. For example, Most Significant Change and Outcome Harvesting investigate outcomes without requiring evaluators to reference stated goals or objectives.
Rad Resources: Scriven’s entry on “goal-free evaluation” in his Evaluation Thesaurus outlines some limitations of goals and objectives. Additionally, I (2014) coauthored a paper in The Foundation Review titled “Goal-Free Evaluation: An Orientation for Foundations’ Evaluations” where I pled to philanthropic organizations to consider expanding their conception of evaluation and how it should be conducted.
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