Un-boxing evaluation through empowerment: A conversation with David Fetterman

12 circles, each circle has a still frame from a youtube unboxing video

This guest blog is an interview between David Fetterman and Jade Maloney. This blog is the second in a series about un-boxing evaluation – the theme of aes19 in Sydney, Australia. The series is designed to generate a global discussion of the theme ‘un-boxing evaluation’ and what that means for our profession and practice. 

When the #aes19SYD committee got to thinking about who could help us un-box evaluation, empowerment evaluation theorist and practitioner, David Fetterman, was the first person who came to mind. In empowerment evaluation, program staff and community members are in control and the evaluator acts as a critical friend (or coach) – someone who is able to ask critical but constrictive questions to support evidence-informed reflections on the way forward. This is one way of un-boxing evaluation – of opening up evaluation to end users, and evaluators to what they can learn from community. 

In David’s practice, he also readily engages with critiques of empowerment evaluation and has evolved the approach through thoughtful reflection. This is another way of un-boxing evaluation and advancing the field.

Jade Maloney: What does un-boxing evaluation mean to you?

David Fetterman: I think it is about making evaluation more accessible to people, demystifying it, and placing it in more people’s hands. If you have ever watched "un-boxing" videos on YouTube, you can appreciate both the anticipation and the sheer joy you see on people's faces as they open up a box of some new treasure. This is all part of the un-boxing of evaluation – watching people's faces as they discover the power and the beauty of evaluation. 

JM: Right. Wouldn’t it be nice if – because of the way we introduced evaluation and the way it was used – people responded with that sense of excitement rather than fear? How do you think empowerment evaluation helps to un-box evaluation?

DF: It hands the evaluation over to the community – not after years of training, but right away. From the get-go, they are in control of the purpose and goals of the evaluation (within the context of what they are already being held accountable for). They learn how to do evaluation by doing it. This is not to say that the evaluator abdicates their responsibility and is not present. But, instead of controlling the evaluation, they serve as a coach or critical friend, guiding the evaluation by providing the community with their knowledge and expertise at every stage in the process. Empowerment evaluation un-boxes evaluation by building evaluation capacity.

JM: If the community is doing the evaluation in an empowerment approach, how does this fit with conversations about professionalising evaluation?

DF: The empowerment evaluator can be either a "certified" evaluator with professional training or someone who learned through the school of hard knocks and still be a coach or critical friend. 

Professionalisation can be an indicator of the health of a maturing field – providing clients with some assurance that those they are engaging have a critical core of knowledge. Alternatively, professionalisation may be a filter to screen out diverse voices. It is like technology, neither good nor bad per se in this context. It depends on how it is used and who it is used by and for what purpose. 

Within the context of this discussion about empowerment evaluation, the focus is on the role of the evaluator, rather than the professionalisation or training and certification of the evaluator.

JM: You're no stranger to debate and criticism. I understand when you first introduced empowerment evaluation in your presidential address at the AEA conference in 1993, the debate spilled out into the corridors as some questioned whether the approach constituted evaluation. Obviously, things have moved on since then with empowerment evaluation used around the globe. But what debate and discussion are you hoping to provoke this year?

DF: Who me? Has there been much debate or criticism? (Just joking). Let me start out by saying when I started this little discussion, I was a lot taller. You do get beaten down a bit. However, I truly believe (as Scriven has agreed with me), "He (or she) that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skills. Our antagonist is our helper" (Edmund Burke).

At the end of Foundations of Empowerment Evaluation (2001), I wrote the following in the same vein:

I did not anticipate either the flurry of excitement or the stormy seas resulting from the introduction of this approach. In an echo of Prospero's blessing to Miranda in The Tempest, this experience has brought both calm seas and auspicious gales. I am deeply appreciative of my colleagues, both for and against this approach, who have taken the time to engage in this important dialogue.

Building on this tradition, I hope to engage us in a discussion about what it means to be an evaluator and what evaluation is. Learning and accountability, control and independence, autonomy, voice, self-determination, and capacity building are integral parts of our language now. I hope to add to this conversation (particularly since my climb to Mt. Everest Base Camp) with an emphasis on our role as evaluators and citizens of this planet, to protect and defend the rights of the earth if we are to have a future in which to engage in these dialogues.

JM: Sounds like that will help continue the conversation we started with Michael Quinn Patton in Launceston last year on Blue Marble Evaluation. I’m really looking forward to having the space for this kind of reflective dialogue. What are you personally looking forward to at the conference?

DF: Seeing many of my colleagues and friends, sharing a few stories, and continuing to build our network – our family of evaluators, sponsors, and concerned community members – as we all work hard to improve the quality of all the lives in our communities.

JM: Lastly, what do you think un-boxing evaluation can do for the discipline?

DF: I think it can open up tremendous potential. It shifts the playing field from one of exclusivity to inclusivity. It allows us to reach more people, to help more people think more evaluatively, and to improve their own lives. Un-boxing evaluation also makes evaluation concepts, techniques, and approaches more accessible to us, as evaluators, as well.

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