Theories of Eval TIG Week: Using Multiple Prescriptive Theories To Form a Descriptive Theory To Guide Your Practice by Eric Barela

Hello.  I’m Eric Barela, Measurement & Evaluation Senior Manager at and current Board Member of the American Evaluation Association.  I’m here to share how I use prescriptive evaluation theories in my everyday practice.

I have been an internal evaluator for over 15 years and have worked in a variety of organizations, from school districts to nonprofits to social enterprises.  Given the variety of organizations I have worked in, I have found that I tend to apply a variety of prescriptive theories, which are approaches generated by well-known evaluation scholars that serve as guides for different types of evaluation practice (e.g., Patton’s utilization-focused evaluation).  It all depends on what I need to ensure that I generate findings that are both useful and used.

While I use different theories to guide different evaluations, I often find myself needing to use multiple theories within the same evaluation.  I engage in quite a bit of what Leeuw & Donaldson refer to as theory knitting.  I like to think of myself knitting multiple prescriptive theories into a nice descriptive theory I can apply to my internal evaluation work.  I often find myself drawing from the following prescriptive theories:

  • House’s social justice evaluation to give voice to those who may be silenced within the organization;
  • House & Howe’s deliberative democratic evaluation to determine recommendations by considering relevant interests, values, and perspectives and by engaging in extensive dialogue with stakeholders
  • Chen’s theory-driven evaluation when an organization has been implementing a program without properly understanding the underlying theory under which it is meant to operate; and
  • Cousins’ participatory evaluation when my colleagues are sophisticated enough in their understanding of the evaluation enterprise (and are willing to set aside time to take part).

While I will often knit these prescriptive theories together in different combinations to guide my practice, there is one theory that always guides my approach: Patton’s utilization-focused evaluation.  As I wrote above, I need to ensure that I generate findings that are both useful AND used.  There is a big difference between useful findings and used findings.  As an internal evaluator I need to add value to the organization.  I can create an incredible evaluation report; however, if I deliver a report that does not resonate with my colleagues and they decide to not take action based on my recommendations, I could be out of a job.  As I have transitioned to the social enterprise sector, the ability to produce and add immediate value has become especially important.

To sum up, I knit together a variety of prescriptive theories to form a descriptive evaluation theory that guides my practice.  However, it is my focus on utilization that determines what \ theories I knit together.

Cool Trick:

Consider prescriptive theories as approaches you can use as needed, depending on the evaluation scenario.  Do a theory assessment, something similar to a needs assessment, but determining what theories might best serve the organization, as you start the evaluation process.  Ask yourself if there are some theories that will work better than others.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Theories of Evaluation  TIG week. All posts this week are contributed by members of the TOE Topical Interest Group. 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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