Un-boxing the expert label
This guest blog is the third in our 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. Margaret Moon works for SafeWork NSW and is broadly responsible for coordinating evaluation activities and building evaluation capacity across the organisation. She has a background in communication and education and is relatively new to the field of evaluation.
Evaluation has the power to improve the design and delivery of policies and programs - evaluators know this in their hearts and minds. But policymakers, program managers and decision-makers sometimes need a little more convincing.
In my role, I’m responsible for strengthening evaluation capacity across the organisation. As Jade wrote in the first blog in this series, I want to let other people know that evaluation isn’t an imposition, but a wonderful opportunity to learn and improve.
Un-boxing the expert label
I’ve been in my role for a couple of years. I’m responsible for commissioning evaluations, monitoring evaluation activities across the organisation, and providing support and advice where needed, but I was appointed without any extensive experience in evaluation. This is not uncommon in government organisations. You get appointed to a new role with “evaluation” in the title and suddenly you’re an expert!
This is all very fine and lovely, but the downside is that you are often just learning as you go and only one jump ahead of the people you are working with. You often feel a bit like an imposter because you don’t know all the answers and worry that aren’t giving the advice that an “expert” might give.
In the beginning, I tried to look and sound knowledgeable to keep up with these expectations of ‘expert-ness’, but I’ve recently hit upon a new strategy which involves actively promoting the fact that I don’t have all the answers.
I’m trying to break down the notion of ‘expert’. This is a much more effective approach because it lets me connect with my colleagues on an equal basis and is far less scary for both parties. The joy of this approach is that I don’t feel like I’m going to be caught out at any moment, and the colleagues I work with feel as though they have something to contribute – that we’re working together to find solutions, rather than this being an ‘expert-led’ process. My philosophy is that two heads are better than one, and we’re all in this together.
What does this mean in practice for capacity strengthening?
By breaking down the notion of ‘expert’, we’re shining a light on what it really means to be an evaluator. For me, the ability to be open to the ideas of other people along with being thoughtful about the impact of our own practices is the hallmark of a good evaluator.
It’s not about having the jargon under control, it’s the attitude that counts (having what Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’). Thinking and listening skills are the capabilities that you need to develop to be a good evaluator, as well as having the ability to ask hard questions of yourself and others. Being interested in other people and willing to learn are helpful attributes as well.
As David Fetterman says in this interview about Empowerment Evaluation, people learn how to do evaluation by doing it, and we need to encourage people to see evaluation as something that’s within their reach, not as something hard and scary. I find that getting people to think evaluatively is often as simple as asking people what they really want to know and what’s important to them.
It’s a good idea to seek out mentors (actual experts with lots of years of experience and probably some academic qualifications) who can provide you with advice and support whilst you are on your learning journey, which of course never ends. A mentor can help guide the process and answer your questions without taking over. I have a couple of mentors who have been very generous with their time and that’s been invaluable.
I’m more comfortable being an evaluation enthusiast than an expert and I hope that by being open about not having all the answers and bringing people with me on my journey of discovery, that together we can ‘un-box evaluation’ and strengthen our capacity.
What does un-boxing evaluation mean to you?
Un-boxing evaluation is not a straightforward process. It raises a lot of questions about what it means to be an evaluator and what it means to do evaluation. We’re hoping that aes19 will advance these conversations and that you’ll be inspired to join in. The call for papers for aes19 is open until Thursday 7 March 2019 – we look forward to hearing from you!