Tag Archives: American Evaluation Association

Curb Your “Malthusiasm”—How Evaluation Can Contribute to A Sustainable and Equitable Future

malthus_evalblogThe theme of the upcoming 2014 annual conference of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) challenges participants to consider how evaluation can contribute to a sustainable and equitable future. It’s a fantastic challenge, one that cuts to the core of why evaluation matters—its potential to promote the public good locally and globally, today and in the future.

As I prepare my presentations, I want to share some of my thoughts and encourage others to take up the challenge.

The End is Nigh(ish)

The natural and social environments in which we live have limits. Exceed them, and society puts itself at risk.

It’s a simple idea, but one that did not enter the public’s thinking until Thomas Malthus wrote about it in the late 18th century. He famously predicted that, unless something changed, the British population would soon grow too large to feed itself. As it turns out, something did change—among other things, merchants imported food—and the crisis never came to pass.

Today, Malthus is strongly—and unjustly—associated with, as Lauren F. Landsburg put it, “a pessimistic prediction of the lock-step demise of a humanity doomed to starvation via overpopulation.” This jolly point of view is sometimes referred to as Malthusianism, and applied to all forms of catastrophic environmental and social decline.

The underlying concept Malthus articulated—there are real environmental and societal limits, and real consequences for exceeding them—is not controversial. There are, however, controversial perspectives related to it, including:

  • “Malthusiasm”: A passionate belief in—bordering on enthusiasm for—the inevitability of environmental and social collapse, especially in the short term.
  • Denialism: An equally passionate belief that predictions of environmental and social disaster, like those made by Malthus, never come to pass.
  • Self-correctionism: A belief that many small, undirected changes in individual and organizational behavior, related primarily to markets and other social structures, will naturally correct for problems in complex ways that may, at first, be difficult to notice.
  • Intentionalism: A belief that intentional action at the individual, organizational, and social levels—when well planned, executed, and evaluated—can not only help avoid disaster, but produce positive benefits that serve the public good.

I reject the first two. I hope for the third. I’ve spent my life working for the fourth—and this is where evaluation can play a significant role.

From Avoiding Disaster to Promoting Sustainability

I am as much for avoiding disaster as the next guy, but—rightly or wrongly—I expect more from organized human action. Like sustainability. It’s a concept that I and others strongly believe should guide the actions of every organization. It is also a slippery concept that we have not fully defined, making it a rough guide, at best.

So, connecting ideas from various sources (and a few of my own), I’ve developed a preliminary working definition based on a set of underlying principles (in parentheses):

Actions are sustainable when they do not affect future generations adversely (futurity), social groups differentially (equity), larger social and natural systems destructively (globality), or their own objectives negatively (complexity).

I’m not fully satisfied with the definition, but so far it has helped clarify my thinking.

Why Evaluation Matters

Unfortunately, action is only weakly linked to upholding these principles, in part because there is often a lack of information about how well the principles have been (or will be) met.

That is where evaluation comes in. If we use our skills to help design the actions of commercial and social enterprises in ways that uphold these principles, we serve the public good. If we evaluate programs in ways that shed light on these principles—which would require most of us to expand our field of view—we also serve the public good.

This is why evaluation matters—because it has the potential to serve the public good—and why we need to work together to make it matter more. That would truly be evaluation for a sustainable and equitable future.

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New European Standard for Social Impact Measurement

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Evaluation has truly become a global movement. The number of evaluators and evaluation associations around the world is growing, and they are becoming more interconnected. What affects evaluation in one part of the world increasingly affects how it is practiced in another.

That is why the European standard for social impact measurement, announced just a few weeks ago, is important for evaluators in the US.

According to the published report and its accompanying press release, the immediate purpose of the standard is to help social enterprises access EU financial support, especially in relation to the European Social Entrepreneurship Funds (EuSEFs) and the Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

But as László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, pointed out, there is a larger purpose:

The new standard…sets the groundwork for social impact measurement in Europe. It also contributes to the work of the Taskforce on Social Impact Investment set up by the G7 to develop a set of general guidelines for impact measurement to be used by social impact investors globally.

That is big, and it has the potential to affect evaluation around the world.

What is impact measurement?

For evaluators in the US, the term impact measurement may be unfamiliar. It has greater currency in Europe and, of late, in Canada. Defining the term precisely is difficult because, as an area of practice, impact measurement is evolving quickly.

Around the world, there is a growing demand for evaluations that incorporate information about impact, values, and value. It is coming from government agencies, philanthropic foundations, and private investors who want to increase their social impact by allocating their public or private funds more efficiently.

Sometimes these funders are called impact investors. In some contexts, the label signals a commitment to grant making that incorporates the tools and techniques of financial investors. In others, it signals a commitment by private investors to a double bottom line—a social return on their investment for others and a financial return for themselves.

These funders want to know if people are better off in ways that they and other stakeholders believe are important. Moreover, they want to know whether those impacts are large enough and important enough to warrant the funds being spent to produce them. In other words, did the program add value?

Impact measurement may engage a wide range of stakeholders to define the outcomes of interest, but the overarching definition of success—that the program adds value—is typically driven by funders. Value may be assessed with quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods, but almost all of the impact measurement work that I have seen has framed value in quantitative terms.

Is impact measurement the same as evaluation?

I consider impact measurement a specialized practice within evaluation. Others do not. Geographic and disciplinary boundaries have tended to isolate those who identify themselves as evaluators from those who conduct impact measurement—often referred to as impact analysts. These two groups are beginning to connect, like evaluators of every kind around the world.

I like to think of impact analysts and evaluators as twins who were separated at birth and then, as adults, accidentally bump into each other at the local coffee shop. They are delighted and confused, but mostly delighted. They have a great deal to talk about.

How is impact measurement different from impact evaluation?

There is more than one approach to impact evaluation. There is what we might call traditional impact evaluation—randomized control trials and quasi-experiments as described by Shadish, Cook, and Campbell. There are also many recently developed alternatives—contribution analysis, evaluation of collective impact, and others.

Impact measurement differs from traditional and alternative impact evaluation in a number of ways, among them:

  1. how impacts are estimated and
  2. a strong emphasis on valuation.

I discuss both in more detail below. Briefly, impacts are frequently estimated by adjusting outcomes for a pre-established set of potential biases, usually without reference to a comparison or control group. Valuation estimates the importance of impacts to stakeholders—the domain of human values—and expresses it in monetary units.

These two features are woven into the European standard and have the potential to become standard practices elsewhere, including the US. If they were to be incorporated into US practice, it would represent a substantial change in how we conduct evaluations.

What is the new European standard?

The standard creates a common process for conducting impact measurement, not a common set of impacts or indicators. The five-step process presented in the report is surprisingly similar to Tyler’s seven-step evaluation procedure, which he developed in the 1930s as he directed the evaluation of the Eight-Year Study across 30 schools. For its time, Tyler’s work was novel and the scale impressive.

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Tyler’s evaluation procedure developed in the 1930s and the new European standard process: déjà vu all over again?

Tyler’s first two steps were formulating and classifying objectives (what do programs hope to achieve and which objectives can be shared across sites to facilitate comparability and learning). Deeply rooted in the philosophy of progressive education, he and his team identified the most important stakeholders—students, parents, educators, and the larger community—and conducted much of their work collaboratively (most often with teachers and school staff).

Similarly, the first two steps of the European standard process are identifying objectives and stakeholders (what does the program hope to achieve, who benefits, and who pays). They are to be implemented collaboratively with stakeholders (funders and program staff chief among them) with an explicit commitment to serving the interests of society more broadly.

Tyler’s third and fourth steps were defining outcomes in terms of behavior and identifying how and where the behaviors could be observed. The word behavior was trendy in Tyler’s day. What he meant was developing a way to observe or quantify outcomes. This is precisely setting relevant measures, the third step of the new European standard process.

Tyler’s fifth and sixth steps were selecting, trying, proving, and improving measures as they function in the evaluation. Today we would call this piloting, validation, and implementation. The corresponding step in the standard is measure, validate and value, only the last of these falling outside the scope of Tyler’s procedure.

Tyler concluded his procedure with interpreting results, which for him included analysis, reporting, and working with stakeholders to facilitate the effective use of results. The new European standard process concludes in much the same way, with reporting results, learning from them, and using them to improve the program.

How are impacts estimated?

Traditional impact evaluation defines an impact as the difference in potential outcomes—the outcomes participants realized with the program compared to the outcomes they would have realized without the program.

It is impossible to observe both of these mutually exclusive conditions at the same time. Thus, all research designs can be thought of as hacks, some more elegant than others, that allow us to approximate one condition while observing the other.

The European standard takes a similar view of impacts and describes a good research design as one that takes the following into account:

  • attribution,the extent to which the program, as opposed to other programs or factors, caused the outcomes;
  • deadweight, outcomes that, in the absence of the program, would have been realized anyway;
  • drop-off, the tendency of impacts to diminish over time; and
  • displacement, the extent to which outcomes realized by program participants prevent others from realizing those outcomes (for example, when participants of a job training program find employment, it reduces the number of open jobs and as a result may make it more difficult for non-participants to find employment).

For any given evaluation, many research designs may meet the above criteria, some with the potential to provide more credible findings than others.

However, impact analysts may not be free to choose the research design with the potential to provide the most credible results. According to the standard, the cost and complexity of the design must be proportionate to the size, scope, cost, potential risks, and potential benefits of the program being evaluated. In other words, impact analysts must make a difficult tradeoff between credibility and feasibility.

How well are analysts making the tradeoff between credibility and feasibility?

At the recent Canadian Evaluation Society Conference, my colleagues Cristina Tangonan, Anna Fagergren (not pictured), and I addressed this question. We described the potential weaknesses of research designs used in impact measurement generally and Social Return on Investment (SROI) analyses specifically. Our work is based on a review of publicly available SROI reports (to date, 107 of 156 identified reports) and theoretical work on the statistical properties of the estimates produced.

ces_2014_tangonan_gargani_evalblogAt the CES 2014 conference.

What we have found so far leads us to question whether the credibility-feasibility tradeoffs are being made in ways that adequately support the purposes of SROI analyses and other forms of impact measurement.

One design that we discussed starts with measuring the outcome realized by program participants. For example, how many participants of a job training program found employment, or the test scores realized by students who were enrolled in a new education program. Sometimes impact analysts will measure the outcome as a pre-program/post-program difference, often they measure the post-program outcome level on its own.

Once the outcome measure is in hand, impact analysts adjust it for attribution, deadweight, drop-off, and displacement by subtracting some amount or percentage for each potential bias. The adjustments may be based on interviews with past participants, prior academic or policy research, or sensitivity analysis. Rarely are they based on comparison or control groups constructed for the evaluation. The resulting adjusted outcome measure is taken as the impact estimate.

This is an example of a high-feasibility, low-credibility design. Is it good enough for the purposes that impact analysts have in mind? Perhaps, but I’m skeptical. There is a century of systematic research on estimating impacts—why didn’t this method, which is much more feasible than many alternatives, become a standard part of evaluation practice decades before? I believe it is because the credibility of the design (or more accurately, the results it can produce) is considered too low for most purposes.

From what I understand, this design–and others that are similar–would meet the European standard. That leads me to question whether the new standard has set the bar too low, unduly favoring feasibility over credibility.

What is valuation?

In the US, I believe we do far less valuation than is currently being done in Europe and Canada. Valuation expresses the value (importance) of impacts in monetary units (a measure of importance).

If the outcome, for example, were earned income, then valuation would entail estimating an impact as we usually would. If the outcome were health, happiness, or well-being, valuation would be more complicated. In this case, we would need to translate non-monetary units to monetary units in a way that accurately reflects the relative value of impacts to stakeholders. No easy feat.

In some cases, valuation may help us gauge whether the monetized value of a program’s impact is large enough to matter. It is difficult to defend spending $2,000 per participant of a job training program that, on average, results in additional earned income of $1,000 per participant. Participants would be better off if we gave $2,000 to each.

At other times, valuation may not be useful. For example, if one health program saves more lives than another, I don’t believe we need to value lives in dollars to judge their relative effectiveness.

Another concern is that valuation reduces the certainty of the final estimate (in monetary units) as compared to an impact estimate on its own (in its original units). That is a topic that I discussed at the CES conference, and will again at the conferences of the European Evaluation Society, Social Impact Analysts Association, and the American Evaluation Association .

There is more to this than I can hope to address here. In brief—the credibility of a valuation can never be greater than the credibility of the impact estimate upon which it is based. Call that Gargani’s Law.

If ensuring the feasibility of an evaluation results in impact estimates with low credibility (see above), we should think carefully before reducing credibility further by expressing the impact in monetary units.

Where do we go from here?

The European standard sets out to solve a problem that is intrinsic to our profession–stakeholders with different perspectives are constantly struggling to come to agreement about what makes an evaluation good enough for the purposes they have in mind. In the case of the new standard, I fear the bar may be set too low, tipping the balance in favor of feasibility over credibility.

That is, of course, speculation. But so too is believing the balance is right or that it is tipped in the other direction. What is needed is a program of research—research on evaluation—that helps us understand whether the tradeoffs we make bear the fruit we expect.

The lack of research on evaluation is a weak link in the chain of reasoning that makes our work matter in Europe, the US, and around the world. My colleagues and I are hoping to strengthen that link a little, but we need others to join us. I hope you will.

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On the Ground at AEA #2: What Participants Had to Say

Are you suffering from “post-parting depression” now that the conference of the American Evaluation Association has ended? Maybe this will help–a sampling of the professionals who attended the conference, along with their thoughts on the experience.  Special thanks to Anna Fagergren who collected most of these photos and quotes.

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Stefany Tobel Ramos, City Year

This is my first time here and I really enjoyed the professional development workshop Evaluation-Specific Methodology. I learned a lot and have new ideas about how to get a sense of students as a whole.

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Jonathan Karanja, Independent Consultant with Nielsen, Kenya

This is my first time here and Nielsen is trying to get into the evaluation space, because that is what our clients want. The conference is a little overwhelming but I have a strategy – go to the not technically demanding, easy-to-digest sessions. Baby steps. I want to ensure that our company learns to not just apply market research techniques but to actually do evaluation.

george_julnes_aea_2013_evalblogGeorge Julnes, University of Baltimore

When I attend AEA, I get to present to enthusiastic groups of evaluation professionals. It makes me feel like a rock star for a week. Then I go home and do the dishes.

linda_pursley_aea_2013_evalblogLinda Pursley, Lesley University

I’m returning to the conference after some years away—it’s great to renew contact with acquaintances and colleagues. I am struck by the conference’s growth and the huge diversity of TIGs (topical interest groups), and I’m finding a lot of sessions of interest.

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Pieta Blakely, Commonwealth Corporation

It’s my first time here and it’s a little overwhelming. I’m getting to know what I don’t know. But it’s also really exciting to see people working on youth engagement because I’m really interested in that.

linda_stern_aea_2103_evalblogLinda Stern, National Democratic Institute

I’ve been coming for many years, and I really like the two professional development workshops I took—Sampling and Empowerment Evaluation Strategies—and how they helped guide my way through the greater conference program.

DSC02841Carsten Strømbæk Pedersen, National Board of Social Services, Denmark

John, I really like your blog. You have…how do you say it in English?…a twisted mind. I really like that.

Aske Graulund, National Board of Social Services, Denmark

Nina Middelboe, Oxford Research AS, Denmark

[nods of agreement]

No greater compliment, Carsten!  And my compliments to all 3,500 professionals who participated in the conference.

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On the Recursive Nature of Recursion: Reflections on the AEA 2013 Conference

John Gargani Not Blogging

Recursion is when your local bookstore opens a café inside the store in order to attract more readers, and then the café opens a bookstore inside itself to attract more coffee drinkers.

Chris Lysy at Freshspectrum.com noticed, laughed at, and illustrated (above) the same phenomenon as it relates to my blogging (or rather lack of it) during the American Evaluation Association Conference last week.

I intended to harness the power of recursion by blogging about blogging at the conference. I reckoned that would nudge a few others to blog at the conference, which in turn would nudge me to do the same.

I ended up blogging very little during those hectic days, and none of it was about blogging at the conference. Giving up on that idea, I landed on blogging about not blogging, then not blogging about not blogging, then blogging about not blogging about not blogging, and so on.

Once Chris opened my eyes to the recursive nature of recursion, I noticed it all around me at the conference.

roe_aea_2013_evalblogFor example, the Research on Evaluation TIG (Topical Interest Group) discussed using evaluation methods to evaluate how we evaluate. Is that merely academic navel gazing? It isn’t. I would argue that it may be the most important area of evaluation today.

As practitioners, we conduct evaluations because we believe they can make a positive impact in the world, and we choose how to evaluate in ways we believe produce the greatest impact. Ironically, we have little evidence upon which to base our choices. We rarely measure our own impact or study how we can best achieve it.

ROE (research on evaluation, for those in the know) is setting that right. And the growing community of ROE researchers and practitioners is attempting to do so in an organized fashion. I find it quite inspiring.

A great example of ROE and the power of recursion is the work of Tom Cook and his colleagues (chief among them Will Shadish).tom_cook_aea_2103_evalblogI must confess that Tom is a hero of mine. A wonderful person who finds tremendous joy in his work and shares that joy with others. So I can’t help but smile every time I think of him using experimental and quasi-experimental methods to evaluate experimental and quasi-experimental methods.

Experiments and quasi-experiments follow the same general logic. Create two (or more) comparable groups of people (or whatever may be of interest). Provide one experience to one group and a different experience to the other. Measure outcomes of interest for the two groups at the end of their experiences. Given that, differences in outcomes between the groups are attributable to differences in the experiences of the groups.

If on group received a program and the other did not, you have a very strong method for estimating program impacts. If on group received a program designed one way and the other a program designed another way, you have a strong basis for choosing between program designs.

Experiments and quasi-experiments differ principally in how they create comparable groups. Experiments assign people to groups at random. In essence, names are pulled from a hat (in reality, computers select names at random from a list). This yields two highly comparable but artificially constructed groups.

Quasi-experiments typically operate by allowing people to choose experiences as they do in everyday life. This yields naturally constructed groups that are less comparable. Why are they less comparable? The groups are comprised of people who made difference choices, and these choice may be associated with other factors that affect outcomes. The good news is that the groups can be made more comparable–to some degree–by using a variety of statistical methods.

four_arm_study_aea_2013_evalblogIs one approach better than another? At the AEA Conference, Tom described his involvement with efforts to answer that question. One way that is done is by randomly assigning people to two groups–one group that will be part of an experiment or another group that will be part of a quasi-experiment (referred to as an observational study in the picture above). Within the experimental group, participants are randomly assigned to either a treatment group (e.g., math training) or control group (vocabulary training). Within the quasi-experimental group, participants choose between the same two experiences, forming treatment and comparison groups according to their preference.

Program impact estimates are compared for the experimental and quasi-experimental groups. Differences at this level are attributable to the evaluation method and can indicate whether one method is biased with respect to the other. So far, there seems to be pretty good agreement between the methods (when implemented well–no small achievement), but much work remains to be done.

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Perhaps the most important form of recursion at the AEA Conference is membership. AEA is comprised of members who manage themselves by forming groups of members who manage themselves by forming groups of members who manage themselves. The board of AEA, TIGs, local affiliates, task forces, working groups, volunteer committees, and conference sessions are all organized by and comprised of groups of members who manage themselves. That is power of recursion–3,500 strangers coming together to create a community dedicated to making the world a better place. And what a joy to watch them pull it off.

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On the Ground at AEA #1: Tina and Rodney

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Rodney Hopson, Professor, George Mason University (Past President of AEA)

I’m plotting.  I’m always plotting. That’s how you make change in the world. You find the opportunities, great people to work with, and make things happen.

Tina Christie, Professor, UCLA

I’ve just finished three years on the AEA board with Rodney. The chance to connect with colleagues like Rodney–work with them, debate with them, laugh with them–is something I look forward to each year. It quickly starts to feel like family.

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Confessions of a Conference Junkie

evalblog_conference_junkieIt’s true—I am addicted to conferences. While I read about evaluation, write about evaluation, and do evaluations in my day-to-day professional life, it’s not enough. To truly connect to the field and its swelling ranks of practitioners, researchers, and supporters, I need to attend conferences. Compulsively. Enthusiastically. Constantly.

Over the past few months, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Canadian Evaluation Society conference in Toronto and the Danish Evaluation Society in Kolding. Over the past two years I have been from Helsinki to Honolulu to speak, present, and give workshops. The figure below shows some of that travel (conferences indicated with darker circles, upcoming travel with dashed lines).

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But today is special—it’s the first day of the American Evaluation Association conference in Washington, DC. If conferences were cities, this one would be New York—big, vibrant, and international.

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And this year, in addition to my presentations, receptions, and workshops (here and here), I will attempt to do something I have never done before—blog from the conference.

EvalBlog has been quiet this summer. Time to make a little digital noise.

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San Francisco Bay Area Evaluators (SFBAE) Celebrate “EVAL-entine’s” Day

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It started a few years back when some evaluators jokingly suggested there should be a national holiday to honor evaluation. Well, that sounded like a pretty good idea to me, so last year I invented a holiday—EVALentine’s Day—that is celebrated throughout the month of February.

A day (February 15) celebrated for an entire month? Think of it like a jubilee year for the Queen.

EVALentine’s Day is an excuse to share your love of evaluation with colleagues, introduce evaluation to those who are unfamiliar with it, and connect with evaluators in your area.

That’s exactly what the members and friends of San Francisco Bay Area Evaluators (SFBAE) did at their recent EVALentine’s Day meet up in Berkeley, California. SFBAE is a local affiliate of the American Evaluation Association. Why not find a local affiliate near you and share the love?

If you live in San Francisco, the East Bay, the South Bay, Marin, Sacramento, or neighboring areas, visit www.sfbae.org or our new LinkedIn group page to learn about upcoming events.

Hope to see you there.

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