Un-boxing the expert label

Marg Moon's picture 16th May 2019 by Marg Moon

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. Catch up on the first and second blogs in this series here. 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! 

We'd love to know your thoughts on what un-boxing evaluation means for you in the comments below.

A special thanks to this page's contributors
Senior Project Officer, SafeWork NSW.
Gosford, Australia.


Anonymous's picture
Joanna Farmer

Love this blog. One of the things I've been thinking about recently in terms of professional development is that it's not just about finding mentors, but also identifying your peers - the people facing the same challenges day-in, day-out. That's where I draw so much strength from places like Better Evaluation, professional associations and also informal networks. 

Marg Moon's picture
Margaret Moon

Thanks for your kind comments Joanna. I agree that being honest about the challenges you are facing is a great way to build relationships with other like-minded folk. I guess there's a fine line between admitting that there are things you don't know and reassuring other people that everything is moderately under control, but on the whole, I find it easier to err on the side of vulnerability, rather than positioning myself as an expert. 

Anonymous's picture
Francis Matthew-Simmons

Thank you for this Margaret, I really enjoyed it. The pressure of being an 'expert', and the accompanying feeling of impostor syndrome, is something that many people go through, even those with years of experience! And it's always important for those doing the evaluating to understand that there is likely to be a level of fear among those 'being evaluated', even if it is never raised.

Marg Moon's picture
Margaret Moon

Thanks for commenting Francis. I agree that people are very nervous about having their program evaluated, even when you make it quite clear that it's all about improving the way we do things, not about judging them personally. Not sure if this is a cultural issue, or a confidence issue, or a bit of both.

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