Today we start a series on "visionary evaluation" - the theme of the 2014 American Evaluation Association conference in October. The series is designed to encourage discussion of these issues to inform presentations and discussions at the conference and to allow a global conversation about them.
Thanks to the BetterEvaluation folks for this opportunity to discuss the AEA conference theme, Visionary Evaluation for a Sustainable, Equitable Future. The theme is intended to spur us to draw forth the best of what evaluation can offer to our world in these times of diminishing natural resources and ongoing social conflicts and inequities.
Visionary evaluation is not a particular method but rather is shorthand for encouraging evaluators to pay special attention to three kaleidoscopic twists they can put on their own particular work to support movement toward a sustainable, equitable future. Those twists are (a) attending to systems thinking, (b) building relationships, and (c) sustainable, equitable living. We’ll hear more about these topics in other blogs over the next few weeks.
When I first thought about this theme, I assumed the stakeholders of the initiative being evaluated would determine what was meant by a sustainable, equitable future. I didn’t think it was necessary for the evaluator to have his/her own vision of such a future. I’ve changed my mind about this: I now think that we all need to be conscious of our own vision of a sustainable, equitable future. Note: this is not about predicting the future or knowing how to get there. Rather it is envisioning what we each think it would look like when it existed.
Why the evaluators’ vision matters
As evaluators, evaluation managers, and evaluation users, we all bring our own biases to our work. Articulating these biases is important to help us understand that we are not totally objective in our work. I am realizing that my vision of a desired sustainable, equitable future is part of the bias I bring. I want to be as upfront as possible about what my orientation is and then be able to see the connection between it and that of the stakeholders with whom I am working. I’ve found that my vision of a desired future makes a difference in, for example, how I think about the boundaries of the evaluation. It shapes the conversations I have with the initiative leaders when starting an evaluation which in turn shapes the questions used in data collection and analysis.
One person I talked to recently argued that evaluators are to be neutral and having a certain view of a desired future would not represent neutrality. I tend to think in terms of evaluators being fair and transparent rather than neutral. Part of transparency is being transparent with ourselves, knowing ourselves so we can be aware of our own biases when interacting with the stakeholders of the initiative we are evaluating. What are your thoughts on this?
What is your vision of a sustainable, equitable future? Do you think it matters if you have such a vision? Why?
Perspectives from a few evaluators
For background and description of the theme, go to the AEA website. You’ll find a coffee break webinar, a short video, and a written description of the theme. You’ll also find links to the conference plenary sessions and two presidential strand sessions in which conference attendees will share their ways of thinking about and enacting the theme.
To learn more about conceptualizing a future that simultaneously attends to the economy, social issues, and natural resources (an orientation congruent with how I envision a sustainable, equitable future), see Bob Willard’s website. Bob will be a conference keynote speaker. Also check out The Natural Step especially their work on Future Fit Benchmarks.