Evaluation Is A Gift

Blogging is hard. I’m not sure why I find it such a struggle, though I know I’m not the only one who does. I marvel at the folks who seem to be able to write quickly, eloquently, and insightfully (I can usually manage 1-2 at a time but rarely all three). But I’m choosing to assume that blogging ability is a learnable skill so I keep practicing and looking for ways to make it easier on myself.

One thing I’m trying is to look for synergies between blogging and other creative work that I find easier, to see if I can borrow some of that momentum and inspiration. In this case, that’s the podcast I’ve been producing with my good friend and co-conspirator Brian Hoessler (of Strong Roots Consulting) for the last couple of years. (If you haven’t checked it out yet, the podcast is called Eval Cafe and it’s semi-regular series of casual conversations about things we find interesting in evaluation, frequently with guests! To quasi-quote our introduction, “it’s the kind of thing you might overhear in your local coffee shop if your local coffee shop were frequented by evaluators”.)

(Here is some fun tangential trivia about me and Brian: we have no idea how we met each other. It was definitely in Saskatoon and probably circa 2012-2013, but other than that, neither of us can remember a specific point in time of meeting. We just appeared in each other’s lives as buddies, and the rest is history! There was a coffee shop hang-out early on though.)

Working on a podcast is all kinds of fun and delightful and it gives me a really good excuse to randomly reach out to interesting people who are doing and saying cool things and invite them onto the show. A perfect example of that is back in January I read an AMAZING article on Better Evaluation LINK, called, “What does it mean to ‘un-box’ evaluation?”, by Jade Maloney, an Australia-based consultant doing evaluation and design work in the disability sector. The article is part of the lead-up for the 2019 Australian Evaluation Society conference and it explores their conference theme of ‘Evaluation Un-boxed’, which is officially my favourite conference theme ever (and there have been some good ones lately!). I loved the article so much that Brian and I reached out to Jade right away and recorded a fabulous episode where we all dug into that theme even more.

Definitely go and check out the article as well as the write-up of the theme on conference website and our podcast episode, ‘What’s in the mystery box?’, while you’re at it (don’t forget to scroll down to see what we link in the show notes as well). And also the follow-up article that Jade wrote after we recorded the episode!

We covered a lot of ground in that conversation, but there was one part that I’ve really wanted to go back to because it spoke to something that’s been on my mind quite a lot lately, which is the idea that evaluation is (or can be) a gift.

Here’s what Jade wrote in her first article:

As evaluators, we see evaluation as a gift. We see evaluation’s potential to support effective policy and program design, guide ongoing program development, provide insight into on-the-ground practice, and identify whether intended (and any unintended) outcomes are being realised. We see how evaluation can support better public policy and, thereby, better individual, social and environmental outcomes.

I was so excited to see Jade writing about this, because a few weeks earlier I’d scribbled some notes in my reflection journal along the same lines and was glad to see I wasn’t alone in thinking about it. This is what I wrote and shared again on the podcast:

If I believe evaluation expertise is a gift that can be given, that has three implications for my practice: 1) I have something of value to give. Thinking of something as a gift means assuming it is not worthless. 2) Good gifts are thoughtful and personalized. They are selected and given based on a judgement call that they will be meaningful, useful, and valuable to the recipient. They are also presented in a way that emphasizes the assumption of their value. Bad gifts are generic, impersonal, and presented without thought or attention to how they will be received. 3) While you can prepare a gift to be received well, you cannot assume control over what happens with it once given. It is up to the recipient to decide what it means to them and what they will do with it.

It was that last thought there that really caught me—this recognition that while we might try to influence it, we can’t control how people receive what we do and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I may work really hard for an evaluation (design or process or deliverable) to be good and take a lot of pride and satisfaction in doing what I do well, and I might do everything I can for it to be useful and used well, but gifts are meant to be given, and giving something means letting go of it. I don’t know that I felt especially possessive of my evaluation work or projects before now, but I definitely didn’t think of them with that degree of… I’m grasping for a word here and the closest one to me at the moment is “liberation”.

There’s an ephemerality in doing evaluation work as an external consultant, which I’d noticed but hadn’t thought through all the implications of. Paying attention to it now is shifting my thinking in subtle ways. It makes me feel even more strongly about the centrality of relationships and collaboration in the work. It nudges my thinking about responsibility, what I am responsible and not responsible for, and reminds me that the people I’m working with are partners who share the responsibility for how evaluation is used, rather than it being my burden to carry alone. It moves me further away from that expert-driven model. It also reinforces the importance of asking, “Who will be using these findings? And how?”, to make sure the gift is given widely and to those who will use it well and be generous themselves. Acknowledging that I don’t control what is done with a gift doesn’t erase my responsibilities in giving it. If anything it heightens them.

Giving the gift of evaluation. Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Giving the gift of evaluation. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I can’t control how evaluation is used, but I can make damn sure that if I give a gift, I’m giving it well, giving it in a way that reflects the value it’s meant to have. If bad gifts are generic, impersonal and presented thoughtlessly, then good gifts are meaningful, personalized, and presented with care and attention. That doesn’t always mean fanfare and fireworks and big glitzy reports that are designed up the wazoo. Some of the best gifts I’ve received have been ones that were just handed to me, a book with a special inscription inside that made it clear it was chosen for me with love and intention or a something small given with warmth and a smile. The key is that it’s a gift that you know is meant for you with thought to what will make it meaningful and useful for you, in what it is and how it’s given. In evaluation we already know that this is important. It’s the reason we care about utilization-focused evaluation and have embraced data visualization and effective reporting strategies. This is just a further reminder for me to keep it personal and personalized. Heck, somebody out there might even want and need the 400-page wordy tome of a report (after all, some of us like socks for Christmas!), though I’m probably not the person to give that particular gift.

So if evaluation can be a gift, if it can be given in a way that is meaningful and useful to someone, then that means it has value and it’s okay to think of it that way. I worry about that sometimes. I ask myself, “Do I really have something to offer here? Is this helpful? Is it doing anything good?” Sometimes evaluation feels like a burden, a challenge, a distraction, a threat, a shadow, or just a very tall mountain to climb. And it can be all of those things too, but it’s still a gift. It’s the gift of permission, time, space, and a way to ask just those kinds of questions—“Is this helping? Is this good?”—and learn something about that.

Just writing this and thinking about evaluation as a valuable gift that deserves to be treated that way in how we do it brings me right back around again to that question of, “Who gets given this gift? Who is it for? Personalized and thoughtfully chosen and presented for whom?” Any time there is distribution of a valuable resource, it becomes important to ask about and examine the equity of that distribution, and these are questions I’m pushing myself to always ask.

I’m happy to report that this is one of the faster blog posts I’ve written. Yay for building on podcast inspiration! And with 19-going-on-20 episodes posted, maybe I’ll even make a regular blogger out of myself yet. (Do not hold me to this.)

Speaking of podcasts (and gifts), here are some of the ones I’m finding the most enlivening and enlightening right now, and maybe you’ll enjoy them too!

  • MEDIA INDIGENA - Rick Harp leads a vibrant weekly roundtable on current affairs from Indigenous perspectives

  • Secret Feminist Agenda - Hannah McGregor furthers a nefarious feminist agenda with a host of fabulous guests

  • The Good Ancestor Podcast - Layla Saad connects with culture-shapers and change-makers to find out what makes a good ancestor

  • Living Myth - Michael Meade draws links between current affairs in troubling times with timeless, mythic stories