Positioning participation on the power spectrum

Cartoon about someone who says they engage in participatory evaluation, but in reality, they simply sent out a survey

In the second blog in the 4-part series about participation in evaluation, Irene Guijt and Leslie Groves focus on making power relationships and values in 'participatory' evaluation processes explicit to avoid tokenistic participation.

‘Participation’ is used as a shorthand for a wide range of values that underpin the power that people have to influence evaluation processes.  For some evaluators or commissioners, asking for more views from more community members to ensure relevance of interventions is sufficient. For others, evaluations must meet the information needs of local citizens so that these citizens decide what gets asked and how. In the first case, community members are allowed to influence by sharing in a one-way form of feedback. In the second, power extends to influencing multiple aspects of the evaluation as part of a wider commitment to empowering citizens.

The use of the same word “participation”- to cover a range of practices is problematic. Mentioning the word in an evaluation design or report, does not – in and of itself – make clear the scope and quality of engagement. For us, looking at participation through a power lens can help clarify what it means, particularly as the evaluation community lacks agreed standards on the term.

In this blog, we offer evaluation commissioner and evaluators three steps for further clarity on participation in evaluation:

  1. Decide on the extent to which you want and are able to share power
  2. Be clear about why participation matters and which values are informing your choices
  3. Be pro-active and explicit in how you will avoid tokenistic participation.

1. Participation involves sharing power – so decisions need to be made about how power over different aspects of evaluation processes will be shared and between whom.

Being clear about the form that participation by different stakeholders in an evaluation will take requires deciding whether you are willing and able to share power. (Even being in a position that gives you the power – or not – to make this choice is important to think about!)

Leslie’s research on beneficiary feedback found two forms most common. First, a one-way system of data extraction i.e. from those affected by injustices, poverty or disasters to the evaluator. Participants thus have power to influence the evidence base related to the programme. However, the extent of that influence is not always clear. This is particularly the case where evaluators retain the power to make evaluative judgements and analysis without cross checking their interpretations with data providers. The other form was a two-way system or a closed feedback loop that involves a dynamic process of listening and responding to feedback, recommended by ALNAP for humanitarian work and in the peace-building domain. Here the evaluation process is making visible what power people had over the findings.

Sincere power sharing has very practical consequences. Let’s take transparency about evaluation reports – commitment to the principle that people have a right to information about the quality of interventions meant to improve their lives. Such information often goes no further than organisational gatekeepers. DFID, for example, has a commitment to dissemination of evaluation reports. Indeed all evaluation reports can be found online. But how do those without internet access, computer literacy or relevant language skills access the information? How do they find out about what changes have resulted from the sharing of their views and experiences? How can they learn from others’ experiences so as to scale up good practice themselves? Questions such as these highlight hidden forms of power that mean that claims to participation and transparency remain an aspiration rather than a reality.

2. Be clear about why participation matters for you in your situation.

Clarity about the level of aspiration will help you be precise about what choices need to be made (this will be discussed in more detail in our next blog in the series). People opt for more participation in evaluation for diverse reasons.

Respect for people and their rights to shape their own futures.

Listening to and engaging with people in different evaluation stages  is about respect for their input on issues that have a bearing on their destinies. Simply put, power over evaluation processes is morally right. 

Supporting empowerment and human rights outcomes.

Seeking, valuing and engaging people’s voices can be empowering. It can support women and men to exercise more control over their lives and to seek fulfilment of their rights. Participatory evaluation, when done well, can directly contribute to these outcomes

Ensuring relevance.

Listening to people matters because what is designed, funded and implemented must meet people’s actual, rather than presumed, needs. To do so, interventions must be designed and implemented with them. Imposing ideas of what should or could work has led to inefficient and costly initiatives that have, at times, done harm. 

Optimising results.

To improve implementation, evaluation needs insights on the process of change. To improve strategy, unintended and negative consequences are particularly important – and who knows this better than those to whom it is happening?

3. Tokenistic participation in evaluation is common and avoidable.

Tokenism occurs when high expectations or ambitious claims of empowerment do not match evaluation practice. Promises of power sharing around decisions about evaluation questions or generating recommendations can become empty promises. Local participants might be given an opportunity to validate findings but might not have the capacity or be given sufficient time to engage with the data in a meaningful way. An evaluation steering group may include a local citizen but offer little opportunity to influence a process driven by others.  Sometimes a small number is assumed to represent large numbers of others on whose behalf they are asked to speak.

Such practices can harm the individuals, who are under pressure to contribute or left feeling disempowered, perpetuating power differences that lead to domination of a vocal few. They contribute to participation fatigue and unnecessarily increase a time burden on intended beneficiaries without clear benefit.

Tokenism is likely when:

  • The purpose of stakeholder participation in evaluation is not clear or the kind of participation is not agreed.
  • Facilitation of participation in evaluation is weak with insufficient time or money available to do this well.
  • Attention is only given to participation in data collection (the one-way feedback form mentioned above) and not to seeking input on other evaluation tasks. 

Hearing about your experiences

Does the idea of participation as degrees of power sharing help you clarify what participation could mean in your evaluation situation? If not, are there other concepts that can help us as evaluation professionals define participation in evaluation?

What other reasons have you come across for shaping power in evaluation and thereby making them more participatory?

Q&A / webinar

Irene Guijt and Leslie Groves held a Q&A on the reflections presented in their blog series on participation in evaluation. View the recording below.

'Positioning participation on the power spectrum' is referenced in: