What we can learn from New Year’s Resolutions to improve evaluation?


In this first blog of 2019, Patricia Rogers, Greet Peersman and Alice Macfarlan examine how New Year's resolutions are similar to many evaluation practices.

Happy New Year to you!  While different dates are celebrated for the new year, it’s a common practice to have some sort of reflective process looking back over the year that was and looking ahead to the coming year.

For many people this takes the form of New Year’s resolutions.  “This year I will …”.  Recently we were talking about how these have similarities to some evaluation processes -  stating specific but perhaps unrealistic goals, reporting on lack of progress, and then producing recommendations (or pledges)  to stop doing the bad things and start doing the good things – but which are then repeated in subsequent evaluation reports. Neither resolutions nor evaluation processes like these tend to be very helpful.

What might be the alternative?

A recent blog by Jill Stark, a journalist and author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad, challenges the standard approach to New Year’s resolutions.

She writes:

‘New Year, New You’ is a con. It’s a lie built on one of the most destructive human emotions – shame. It implies that there’s something wrong with the ‘old you’. You’re not thin enough, rich enough, attractive enough, relaxed enough. But if you just lose five kilos, buy this luxury car, sign up to this bootcamp, or order these breathable yoga pants, you could be.

It’s no wonder that about 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside by February. When shame is our main reason to change it does not motivate – it paralyses. We set radical goals, telling ourselves that only by meeting them will we have value. And when we inevitably fail to reach this impossibly high bar, shame becomes even more corrosive.”

Instead of cataloging the failures of the year, triggering shame and despair which make lasting change harder, she advocates for self-compassion, and for assessing progress in terms of what really matters and what will really help.  So for her New Year, she acknowledges shortfalls but also seeks to understand why they have happened, she identifies and celebrates all the achievements of the year, and she has identified the values by which she wants to operate in the coming year – in her case kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity and an open-hearted willingness to listen and learn.

There are many parallels with evaluation.  So often evaluation is seen either as an exercise in justification and self-promotion or a process of relentless criticism and fault-finding.  Neither is conducive to learning and improvement, nor do either achieve real accountability, and we'd love to hear your thoughts on this:

Are there ways that evaluation processes can be more like thoughtful New Year reflections – where they can contribute to improvement by identifying and celebrating achievements, acknowledging and understanding gaps and failures, and by identifying meaningful values to guide future work?  What might you take from this to inform your practice in planning, doing, managing and using evaluation in the year ahead? 

On a personal note...

We also thought about how this was relevant for planning our work with BetterEvaluation for 2019 and beyond.  We have a big year ahead of us and rather than focusing on 'resolutions' in the traditional sense, we’ve been reflecting on what we’ve learned in 2018, what we want to achieve in the future and what values will be driving us forward.

We want to support an inclusive and engaged community of users and contributors, across sectors, disciplines and countries.  Soon, building on the user experience study we completed last year, you’ll be seeing enhancements to make it easier to navigate the site, to contribute from your experience and to connect with others.

We want to provide credible content that covers the range of methods and processes in evaluation.  We’ve been working with contributors to create pages on new methods, processes, approaches and thematic pages and to refresh some existing pages.

We are also revamping our material on both evaluation capacity strengthening and evaluation research and innovation to provide easier access to resources and opportunities and to showcase what is being done in this space globally.

We will also be working to refresh our governance and management strategy to better position BetterEvaluation for ongoing sustainability. 

And all these changes and the way we operate will continue to be guided by the principles underlying BetterEvaluation of supporting inclusion and diversity, connecting with and building on existing resources and initiatives, and connecting research, theory and practice.

Happy New Year!  We hope you have a successful year, and that your reflection and learning help you achieve everything you’re dreaming of.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be inspired by New Year’s resolutions practices (good and bad) to move evaluation processes to better support planning and improvement.