Hello. I’m Eric Barela, Measurement & Evaluation Senior Manager at Salesforce.org 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.
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.
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