Lifting the quality of evaluation #2: Capable evaluators who know their ‘space’

What key elements are needed to seriously drive up how well evaluation delivers quality and value for money?

Yesterday I talked about how evaluation-savvy clients can make or break the value of evaluation. Now for the other side of the equation …

What evaluator capabilities still seem to be lacking and could really drive up the value of what we do?

I believe we urgently need evaluators to:

  1. clearly understand the client’s perspective – particularly where it is that evaluation contractors are currently falling short and seriously need to step up and deliver high quality, valuable work
  2. build their strengths and capabilities in order to deliver for clients (this requires hard-nosed and genuinely reflective self-assessment of their own competencies, as well as genuine use of meta-evaluative feedback from the client and other well-informed critics)
  3. clearly define “who they are” as evaluators, i.e. what their unique value proposition is
  4. complement their formal learning and professional development with ways of gleaning the ‘tacit knowledge’ (or evaluation know-how) we can only get by observing, watching, and working alongside those who have it.

It’s particularly worth spending a little extra time thinking carefully about point #3:

Defining who we are as [individual and teams of] evaluators

In my view, far too many evaluators pitch (and view) themselves as all-rounders or capable of taking on any piece of work.

Content specialization aside (most people ‘get’ that), what is it about one evaluation team that distinguishes it from another and makes it stronger in some spaces but – more importantly – weaker in others)?

Part of the problem resides in those who choose a particular approach as the “one true way”. These are the evaluators who, when asked, are incapable of clearly articulating the circumstances under which they would not choose their preferred approach. The narrower the approach, the more horrified we should be at the lack of a coherent answer to the “when wouldn’t you use it?” question.

But even those who view themselves as relative evaluation generalists need to understand that every individual and team is strong in some suits but not in others. Otherwise, do you even have a professional identity at all?

The reality is that the knowledge bases and skill sets that make up the rich discipline of evaluation are so wide and deep that no single individual or team can possibly peg off the full range of competencies. So, to pitch oneself as the “all things to all people” dream team amounts to either deliberate misrepresentation or an ignorance of just how huge the evaluation toolkit and knowledge base has really become.

Until we (as teams and individuals) are clear about what is distinctive about the way we work and what we are good at – and the spaces we don’t (and shouldn’t) work in, we aren’t truly clear about who we are as evaluators.

Of course, one thing we all need to be unambiguously clear about if what distinguishes our work from researchers, auditors, and those who specialize in monitoring but not evaluation. In particular, we must be crystal clear about why genuine evaluation must be value-based.

Implications for professional development of individuals and teams

Each individual evaluator, evaluation team, and evaluation consulting business should be thinking hard about how they wish to build their professional repertoire so they have a strong and [relatively] unique value proposition.

This will allows them to clearly communicate to clients (and prospective employers) what it is that distinguishes their work from the other masses vying for the same contract (or job).

When clients get good at asking about this – and when evaluators get good at answering the question – we will finally start making useful strides toward ensuring better fit between evaluation projects and evaluation teams.

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