What is evaluation?

Most evaluators have been in the position where friends and family ask, “what exactly is evaluation?”

Simply put, evaluation tells us what works and what does not in a project or policy.

Evaluation is usually conducted to find out whether a project of some sort is working – if it’s meeting its objectives, how well, and why, and overall whether it is worthwhile. Types of project that are evaluated commonly include interventions, initiatives, schemes, projects, programmes, and policies. These may include government policies, charities’ programmes or a project within a business. For example, evaluations might be undertaken on a government back-to-work programme for unemployed people, a policy on reducing house purchase tax for first time buyers, road improvement schemes costing over £10 million, or a charity project that provides free school meals for children in several African countries.

The major purposes of evaluation are to provide learning, to support accountability, and to inform decision making. It does this through rigorous and systematic evidence-gathering and analysis. In the above examples, evaluation would determine if the initiatives are achieving their social and economic aims, and whether they should be continued or possibly receive more funding.

Evaluation is a field of practice – an applied social science – with social, political and ethical dimensions and its own approaches, theories and frameworks. It uses a broad range of designs and methods which may be qualitative, quantitative or a mix of both. Choice of approach, evaluation design and method depends on factors including: the purpose of the evaluation, the questions the evaluation aims to answer, the type of initiative being evaluated, and the time and budget available for the evaluation.

There are many different types of evaluation. Most evaluation is done by evaluators independent from the people or organisation delivering the initiative, though self-evaluation is also a recognised type of evaluation. Evaluation may be undertaken at different stages of an initiative, and concerned with its design, implementation, or results. Evaluations at these stages may be categorised as formative, process, and summative or impact evaluations respectively.

Conducting an evaluation involves acknowledging multiple perspectives of those involved in the initiative, and managing the different interests and values of stakeholders.

Evaluation is a field of activity that has grown rapidly over the past five decades and is still evolving to embrace a range of new approaches to assess the merit and reasons for success or failure of interventions in complex environments.

The UK Evaluation Society promotes evaluation and is guided by some important principles. It has no affinity with particular modes of evaluation and exists to promote excellent practice in all evaluation approaches from, for example, contribution analysis, participatory evaluation or affirmative inquiry to experimental or quasi-experimental designs. It does not privilege any form of agency (independent expert evaluators or self-evaluation) but encourages rigour and transparency in all. It recognises and encourages evaluations as a useful public resource for positive change and argues for ethical considerations to be paramount in evaluation design, process and use.