Tag Archives: satisfaction

Quality is a Joke

If you have been following my blog (Who hasn’t?), you know that I am writing on the topic of evaluation quality, the theme of the 2010 annual conference of the American Evaluation Association taking place November 10-13. It is a serious subject. Really.

But here is a joke, though perhaps only the evaluarati (you know who you are) will find it amusing.

    A quantitative evaluator, a qualitative evaluator, and a normal person are waiting for a bus. The normal person suddenly shouts, “Watch out, the bus is out of control and heading right for us! We will surely be killed!”

    Without looking up from his newspaper, the quantitative evaluator calmly responds, “That is an awfully strong causal claim you are making. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that buses can kill people, but the research does not bear it out. People ride buses all the time and they are rarely killed by them. The correlation between riding buses and being killed by them is very nearly zero. I defy you to produce any credible evidence that buses pose a significant danger. It would really be an extraordinary thing if we were killed by a bus. I wouldn’t worry.”

    Dismayed, the normal person starts gesticulating and shouting, “But there is a bus! A particular bus! That bus! And it is heading directly toward some particular people! Us! And I am quite certain that it will hit us, and if it hits us it will undoubtedly kill us!”

    At this point the qualitative evaluator, who was observing this exchange from a safe distance, interjects, “What exactly do you mean by bus? After all, we all construct our own understanding of that very fluid concept. For some, the bus is a mere machine, for others it is what connects them to their work, their school, the ones they love. I mean, have you ever sat down and really considered the bus-ness of it all? It is quite immense, I assure you. I hope I am not being too forward, but may I be a critical friend for just a moment? I don’t think you’ve really thought this whole bus thing out. It would be a pity to go about pushing the sort of simple linear logic that connects something as conceptually complex as a bus to an outcome as one dimensional as death.”

    Very dismayed, the normal person runs away screaming, the bus collides with the quantitative and qualitative evaluators, and it kills both instantly.

    Very, very dismayed, the normal person begins pleading with a bystander, “I told them the bus would kill them. The bus did kill them. I feel awful.”

    To which the bystander replies, “Tut tut, my good man. I am a statistician and I can tell you for a fact that with a sample size of 2 and no proper control group, how could we possibly conclude that it was the bus that did them in?”

To the extent that this is funny (I find it hilarious, but I am afraid that I may share Sir Isaac Newton’s sense of humor) it is because it plays on our stereotypes about the field. Quantitative evaluators are branded as aloof, overly logical, obsessed with causality, and too concerned with general rather than local knowledge. Qualitative evaluators, on the other hand, are suspect because they are supposedly motivated by social interaction, overly intuitive, obsessed with description, and too concerned with local knowledge. And statisticians are often looked upon as the referees in this cat-and-dog world, charged with setting up and arbitrating the rules by which evaluators in both camps must (or must not) play.

The problem with these stereotypes, like all stereotypes, is that they are inaccurate. Yet we cling to them and make judgments about evaluation quality based upon them. But what if we shift our perspective to that of the (tongue in cheek) normal person? This is not an easy thing to do if, like me, you spend most of your time inside the details of the work and the debates of the profession. Normal people want to do the right thing, feel the need to act quickly to make things right, and hope to be informed by evaluators and others who support their efforts. Sometimes normal people are responsible for programs that operate in particular local contexts, and at others they are responsible for policies that affect virtually everyone. How do we help normal people get what they want and need?

I have been arguing that we should, and when we do we have met one of my three criteria for quality—satisfaction. The key is first to acknowledge that we serve others, and then to do our best to understand their perspective. If we are weighed down by the baggage of professional stereotypes, it can prevent us from choosing well from among all the ways we can meet the needs of others. I suppose that stereotypes can be useful when they help us laugh at ourselves, but if we come to believe them, our practice can become unaccommodatingly narrow and the people we serve—normal people—will soon begin to run away (screaming) from us and the field. That is nothing to laugh at.

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Filed under Evaluation, Evaluation Quality, Program Evaluation

What the Hell is Quality?

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an exasperated Robert Pirsig famously asked, “What the hell is quality?” and expended a great deal of energy trying  to work out an answer.  As I find myself considering the meaning of quality evaluation, the theme of the upcoming 2010 Conference of the American Evaluation Association, it feels like déjà vu all over again.  There are countless definitions of quality floating about (for a short list see Garvin, (1984)), but arguably few if any examples of the concept being applied to modern evaluation practice.  So what the hell is quality evaluation?  And will I need to work out an answer for myself?

Luckily there is some agreement out there.  Quality is usually thought of as an amalgam of multiple criteria, and quality is judged by comparing the characteristics of an actual product or service to those criteria.

Isn’t this exactly what evaluators are trained to do?

Yes.  And judging quality in this way poses some practical problems that will be familiar to evaluators:

Who devises the criteria?
Evaluations serve many often competing interests.  Funders, clients, direct stakeholders, and professional peers make the short list.  All have something to say about what makes an evaluation high quality, but they do not have equal clout.  Some are influential because they have market power (they pay for evaluation services).  Others are influential because they have standing in the profession (they are considered experts or thought leaders).  And as the table below illustrates, some are influential because they have both (funders) and others lack influence because they have neither (direct stakeholders).  More on this in a future blog.

Who makes the comparison?
Quality criteria may be devised by one group and then used by another to judge quality.  For example, funders may establish criteria and then hire independent evaluators (professional peers) who use the criteria to judge the quality of evaluations.  This is what happens when evaluation proposals are reviewed and ongoing evaluations are monitored.  More on this in a future blog.

How is the comparison made?
Comparisons can be made in any number of ways, but (imperfectly) we can lump them into two approaches—the explicit, cerebral, and systemic approach, and the implicit, intuitive, and inconsistent approach.  Individuals tend to judge quality in the latter fashion.  It is not a bad way to go about things, especially when considering everyday purchases (a pair of sneakers or a tuna fish sandwich).  When considering evaluation, however, it would seem best to judge quality in the former fashion.  But is it?  More on this in a future blog.

So what the hell is quality?  This is where I propose an answer that I hope is simple yet covers most of the relevant issues facing our profession.  Quality evaluation is comprised of three distinct things—all important separately, but only in combination reflecting quality.  They are:

Standards
When the criteria used to judge quality come from those with professional standing, the criteria describe an evaluation that meets professional standards.  Standards focus on technical and nontechnical attributes of an evaluation that are under the direct control of the evaluator.  Perhaps the two best examples of this are the Program Evaluation Standards and the Program Evaluations Metaevaluation Checklist.

Satisfaction
When the criteria used to judge quality come from those with market power, the criteria describe an evaluation that would satisfy paying customers.  Satisfaction focuses on whether expectations—reasonable or unreasonable, documented in a contract or not—are met by the evaluator.  Collectively, these expectations define the demand for evaluation in the marketplace.

Empowerment
When the criteria used to judge quality come from direct stakeholders with neither professional standing nor market power, the criteria change the power dynamic of the evaluation.  Empowerment evaluation and participatory evaluation are perhaps the two best examples of evaluation approaches that look to those served by programs to help define a quality evaluation.

Standards, satisfaction, and empowerment are related, but they are not interchangeable.  One can be dissatisfied with an evaluation that exceeds professional standards, or empowered by an evaluation with which funders were not satisfied.  I will argue that the quality of an evaluation should be measured against all three sets of criteria.  Is that feasible?  Desirable?  That is what I will hash out over the next few weeks. 

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Filed under Evaluation, Evaluation Quality