2019 was a big year – turning thirty (ARTD I mean, not me.) ARTD had none of the existential angst that I felt in the lead up to that milestone, as if – overnight – life as I knew it would change irrevocably. In reality, it was more of a slow burn – letting go of the fear of my teens and uncertainty of my twenties to become clearer on who I am and what I’m for.
Perhaps it’s not that different for ARTD. As one of our founding partners, Chris Milne, has retired, and we’ve grown from a small Sydney-based evaluation firm to a public policy consulting company with offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, we’ve needed to get clear on who are – what’s changing and what’s not.
A big, important shift in our professional practice this year has been building our relationships and ways of working with peer researchers.
As we know from our consulting work, change is often hard. But what I learned from Lior Arussy’s Next is Now is that leaning into your core cause and your values and articulating what won’t change can make it easier. While we grow and the work we do evolves – from evaluations of programs, to design, evaluations of strategies and organisational performance frameworks – we remain committed to our cause of improving social and environmental outcomes through evidence and insight. We’re also holding true to our values of curiosity, creativity, credibility, collaboration and commitment.
This year, spurred on by the likes of Brené Brown and Simon Sinek, I’ve also increasingly recognised the importance of bringing my whole self to my work in social change. In a field overshadowed by the spectre of the independent objective outsider, this isn’t a given. However, as Patton, channelling Bob Stake, says “evaluators do not have to pretend neutrality about the problems innovators are attacking in order to do fair, balanced and neutral evaluations of their programs.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t ever need to evolve ourselves. As Melinda Gates puts it in The Moment of Lift: “Working on ourselves while working for others is the inner and outer work – where the effort to change the world and the effort to change ourselves come together.” For me, this has echoes of Donna Merten’s Transformative Research and Evaluation. In this vein, I’ve appreciated learning with and from my peers in the Women and Leadership Australia Advanced Leadership Program, my colleagues at ARTD, my clients and people with lived experience of disability and mental health conditions.
I think it’s important we recognise people with lived experience as more than program beneficiaries, evaluation participants or translators.
To open up our processes, we also need to evolve as evaluators. We need to acknowledge the power dynamics that exist in evaluation, as well as the contexts in which we work, and consciously disrupt them. This was a strong theme at the AES 2019 conference I co-convened. The conversations I had with David Fetterman about un-boxing evaluation through empowerment in the lead up to AES 2020 have influenced my thinking on how we can practically do this.
A big, important shift in our professional practice this year has been building our relationships and ways of working with peer researchers. In our commitment to recognising the rights of people with lived experience to influence the policies and programs affecting their lives, we were proud to stand alongside our peer researchers to present on our evaluations of the Talkin Together program at the launch of their co-design toolkit at the International Convention Centre in October and our mental health peer researcher model at the AES conference in September. Next year, we’re keen to learn more about other initiatives in this space, such as the Asylum Seek Resource Centre’s lived experience evaluator program.
Personally, I’m hoping that more conversations about the role of people with lived experience in evaluation are a legacy of the AES 2019 conference. As someone who has experience of mental ill health, I think it’s important we recognise people with lived experience as more than program beneficiaries, evaluation participants or translators.
I’ve always thought that in evaluation we should focus as much on the process as the product. My initial thinking was about how we need to bring people on the journey, so they accept and use the findings. But, this year, as we have worked more with people with lived experience—as well as with program staff to design and deliver evaluations at different levels—I’ve been more conscious of the process of each engagement. That’s not only so we can create the safety required for honest conversations and provide different ways “in” to technical conversations, but so we can contribute to the kind of transformations our clients are working on, if only in a small way.
One of the most effective ways I know to open up evaluation is to acknowledge the framing power of our questions. As Melinda Gates also highlights, when working with communities for social change, we need to start with listening and check our assumptions. This is fundamental to the way we work at ARTD – curiosity is one of our core values.
As we head into a new year, I’m going to be thinking more deeply about how questions can frame life as well as work. It’s something I read in Hal Gregersen’s Questions are the Answer and I’m looking forward to the space to reflect on the intent that guides me, and our work at ARTD. What are our blind spots? How can we use questions to uncover them? And how can we approach them with curiosity?
On behalf of all our team at ARTD, I wish you a safe and relaxing holiday. We look forward to working alongside you in 2020.