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Reflecting on Equitable Evaluation: Being a Change Agent

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Chew Board Member Dave Salisbury reflects on 2020 and how we respond to the need for equitable evaluation and change in the evaluation sector.

2020 was quite the year (2021 is off to quite the start too) and it’s time reflect. There were two key things that dominated in 2020, the black lives matter movement and COVID-19.

In this blog I want to share a little about how the black lives matter movement made me reflect on the work that I do. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed made so many of us take a step back and reflect in way that we probably had never done before in our lives. The movement prompted me to ask things of myself in both a personal and professional capacity that I had never before considered.

Bringing yourself to the work

Earlier this year, at the NPC Ignites session on equitable evaluation Jara Dean-Coffey challenged us to (amongst other things) “bring ourselves to the work.” This stuck with me and it’s something I’ve been thinking on since. What does it mean for me - a white, blue eyed, middle class male - to bring myself into the work? And how could that lead to a more equitable approach to evaluation.

I have always thought of myself as someone who believes in and speaks up for equality and fairness. I thought I was doing what I could. I thought I was doing enough. I never really thought of myself as part of the problem.

But this year made me think more deeply. I realised that I’d spent so much time trying to stand in someone else’s shoes that I forgot that it’s my shoes that I live in. We all have to listen and learn (and this is something that should never stop) but we all also have to be who we are and understand the role that we play. I began to examine what being me really means in terms of power and privilege both in my everyday life and as an evaluator.

Recognising power as an evaluator

I had never really examined my power as an evaluator in any deep way. Sure, I’d done the surface stuff for an ethics form or a method section but if I’m honest with myself and you, despite all my privilege I probably focused way more thought and energy on what I didn’t have power over.

A good chunk of my evaluation career has been as an internal evaluator in the third sector and I think others will recognise feeling frustrated with the slow pace of change or wrestling with organisational politics. I’ve also worked as a consultant, a position where it’s so easy to think about power as resting with the commissioner or client organisation – I mean ultimately they set the questions (and the budget) right?

I have used and commissioned participatory approaches, and concerned myself with nuance and understanding the impact for different groups. But I can’t honestly say that this was always done with a clear intention of ensuring equity. It was mostly done with the focus of ensuring a “truer” “patient” or “beneficiary” perspective. There were times where we included the same voices we always hear because it seemed “too hard” or time consuming to find people with a different perspective. Conversely there were times when we did manage to include a diverse group of people and set of perspectives. Perhaps on occasion these approaches led to equity by accident, but more often than not equity was not the active intention.

Reflecting now, I can see that every time I focus on the power I don’t have I’m taking the easy way out. When I am not intentionally focused on equity, I’m not doing enough. By focusing on the limits of my power and not being intentional I am merely and obedient actor in a system working to perpetuate the status quo. Which leads me to another question Jara put to all of us:

“Are you here to crunch numbers, or are you here to be a change agent?”

I can already hear in my head a response to this question that may be uttered by some – “you are here to be independent and objective so that you can be fair.” Well the truth is that everyone brings a perspective to their research and evaluation. It’s my job to check my perspective. It’s my job to step back from the system rather than simply participate in it. Where that system is broken, it’s my job to challenge it. It is my job to be a change agent not simply be an obedient number (or qual data) cruncher.

Taking steps

So what does that mean for me and my work? The truth is I am still working that out and I’ll continue to learn. I do know that I have to be more active and more intentional. I have to do more to challenge commissioners ITTs, questions and perspectives, and push my clients to consider equity in their evaluation, research, impact frameworks and ultimately decision making.

And at the same time as using the power at my disposal to push for a more equitable approach to evaluation I also have to do more to give up my power and be more intentional about ensuring equity in the way I work. That means I need to switch my frame from owning the process by which knowledge is produced to facilitating it. From the setting of questions through to the analysis of data, I need to find ways to open myself and the evaluation up to the perspectives of those that don’t have the privileges that I do. The reporting, dissemination and communication needs to be lived out as knowledge that belongs to everyone who has been involved.

It’s not my knowledge, it’s not my report - what comes out of the process of evaluation is new knowledge that we all share and benefit from.

Like many others, I have so much more to learn but now is the time for me, and evaluators like me, also to act. To be intentional. To understand what it means to bring ourselves to the work. To challenge our bosses, our organisations, our commissioners, our clients and ourselves. Now is the time for me and evaluators like me to stop number (or qual) crunching and be change agents.

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