Beyond programs? Is principles-focused evaluation what you’re looking for?

For several years now, I’ve been getting more and more involved in service design, review and reconceptualization to respond to evolutions in the evidence base and the systems within which services operate. And, when I am designing an evaluation framework and strategy or conducting an evaluation, I tend not to be looking at programs, but at services that are operating within larger ecosystems, aiming to complement and to change other aspects of these systems in order to better support individuals and communities.

This isn’t surprising given that I am working in the Australian disability sector, which is currently undergoing significant transformation in the transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Programs are giving way to individualised funding plans that provide people with reasonable and necessary supports to achieve their goals. The future is person- rather than program-centred.

When designing and reconceptualising services in this context, it has been more feasible and appropriate to identify guiding principles, grounded in evidence, rather than prescriptive service models or ‘best practice’.

But what happens when evaluating in this context, given that evaluation has traditionally been based around programs?

Fortunately, well-known evaluation theorist Michael Quinn Patton has been thinking this through. Evaluators, he has realised, are now often confronted with interventions into complex adaptive systems and principle driven approaches, rather than programs with clear and measurable goals. In this context, a principles-focused evaluation approach may be appropriate.

As Patton explained in a recent webinar for the Tamarack Institute, principles-focused evaluation is an outgrowth of developmental evaluation, which he conceived as an approach to evaluating social interventions in complex and adaptive systems.

In a principles-focused evaluation, principles become the evaluand. Evaluators consider whether the identified principle/s are meaningful to the people they are supposed to guide, adhered to in practice, and support desired results.

These are important questions because the way some principles are constructed means they fail to provide clear guidance for behaviour, and because there can be a gap between rhetoric and reality. Patton has established the GUIDE framework so evaluators can determine whether identified principles provide meaningful guidance (G) and are useful (U), inspiring (I), developmentally adaptable (D), and evaluable (E).
I’m now looking forward to reading the books, so I can start using this approach more explicitly in my practice.

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