May 26, 2021

Murray Saunders

Reflections on Evaluative Thinking

Thoughts on the Keynote from Day One of the UK Evaluation Society Annual Conference 2021


Thomas Schwandt’s talk was a typically thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of the fundamental positioning of evaluators and evaluative practice as we have come to experience it. In many ways, it brought together a number of themes that have been preoccupying me and posed a number of questions. It made a distinction between what he called two narratives of evaluation.

Narrative one was conventional, recognisable, formal and what he called ‘systematic’ evaluation, narrative two was systemic and embedded and although familiar in one sense, challenged the perceived view of the role and positioning of evaluative practice.

While narrative one drew a picture of ‘externality’ with the evaluator as expert, detached and outside a context or evaluative environment, narrative two was depicted as inside a context, harnessing the situated knowledge resources of local people, and a wide range of domain knowledge including history, art and just ‘the way we do things around here’.

The evaluator had morphed into a role closer to a ‘change agent’, now more an activist but galvanising and recognising the diversity of valuing and offering their own portfolio of skills and process knowledge to help produce resources for onward planning and change.

As Tom acknowledged, these ideas are quite close to those derived from action research, from participatory models, reflexivity and may, a present at least, have a relatively limited range of applications (building enclaves of alternative practice). What is interesting is the way narrative two seems particularly apt in present circumstances (as one of our questioners pointed out) where many of the big issues confronting us, pose similarly big challenges in the way we make sense of them, develop how and what we ‘value’.

Our world is uncertain, rapidly changing and in many ways polarised in terms of access to resources. As evaluators, we are confronted with a range of boundaries which often are socially and politically derived and do not lend themselves readily to technical fixes.

Questioners for Tom could see the potential of narrative two in such a global context but were wondering about the more conventional context of their work. How would you submit a proposal to commissioners which was informed by this thinking? What about the issue of accountability, to whom and on what basis might an evaluation identify its core audience, stake-holding group and users?

Thank you, Tom, for an unsettling shot over the bow!

Find out more about the Conference here.