AEA’s Potential to Serve the Public Good

What you see here is a brief overview of my recent thoughts about the field of evaluation and the future of AEA. See the PDF for a more fleshed out explanation. Fair warning, it runs to 2,500 words. I am not advocating change, I’m only advocating that we recognize where we are and where we are going, and that we contemplate the consequences. AEA_Evaluation_Evolutionary_Path_Long

The challenge of contending points of view in a representative democracy goes back to the founding of the Republic. James Madison saw the polity as a collection of “factions” and believed that a stable democracy required a diversity of contending factions.

One way to think about the purpose of evaluation is to see it as an honest broker to which those factions can turn. This is not to say that any given evaluation can be, or should be, “objective”. Supporters of one or another point of view will inevitably find the results of any single evaluation wanting.

The question is whether over time, and across evaluations, it matters whether we are seen as taking sides. That perception has consequences for evaluation use, and I can see how outsiders would get the impression that we do take sides. If they do, they will shop elsewhere for evaluation information.

I’m not sure if we can or should change. But I do not think we should continue on our path without awareness of where that path is taking us.



Evolutionary Biology and Ecology as a Valuable Framework for Some Evaluation

I put together a slide deck on the advantages of adding constructs from evolutionary biology and ecology to traditional evaluation. Adding those constructs is worth the trouble when the focus is on:

  • populations of a program types, and
  • rates of change over time

Specific topics covered are:

  • Policy as ecosystem change
  • Evolution of program forms
  • Sustainability in terms of ecosystems as attractors
  • Use of ecosystem analysis to interpret outcome evaluation
  • Using population trends to interpret data on program outcome

Go here for the slides. UD_EBT_Evaluation_Meeting

What does evaluation gain from thinking in alien terms? An argument for taking complexity and evolutionary biology seriously

For a long time, I have been arguing that if “complexity” is to be useful in evaluation, evaluators’ should focus on what complex systems do, rather than on what complex systems are. This is because by focusing on behavior, we can make practical decisions about models, methodologies, and metrics.

I still believe this, but I’m also coming to appreciate that thinking within research traditions also matters. I’m not advocating a return to a “complex system” focus, but I do see value in adopting the perspectives of people who do research and develop theory in the domain of complexity. And by extension, this is also true for evolutionary biology, another field that I have been promoting as being useful for evaluators.

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