If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~African proverb
The other day, our ARTD leadership team was reflecting on the increasing complexity of the evaluations we’re working on. In our experience, there are fewer ‘simple’ program evaluations. This reflects the dynamic social issues our clients in the Australian public sector are responding to. We know that the ‘wicked’ social problems our clients are focused on are driven by a complex interplay between factors like intergenerational trauma, culture, poverty, violence, mental and physical ill health or misuse of alcohol and other drugs.
Complex systems are characterised by non-linearity, emergence, dynamism, co-evolution and uncertainty. When it comes to complexity, the maxim that many heads are better than one definitely holds. We’re consciously partnering with our clients, their clients and other businesses, to co-design and deliver complex evaluations.
It’s been my experience that our clients’ knowledge is often the key that unlocks a successful evaluation. No amount of Googling can replace their understanding and experience of how a policy or program has evolved, including who has championed its development. Recently, I’ve been embedded in a government department for evaluation. I’m full of respect for how experienced, committed and community-conscious public servants harness government processes to deliver social policy outcomes.
I’ve also found that the most pragmatic solutions for program improvement often come from people who’ve participated in them. Interviewing program participants is the part of evaluation that I most cherish. There’s nothing quite like hearing how a program has impacted someone’s life—their ability to provide food or shelter for their children, for example—for making you want to write a resonant evaluation report that celebrates stories. We’re working to ensure we partner with participants as early as we can, bringing in peer researchers or community representatives right from the beginning, if possible.
Successfully managing complex evaluations doesn’t necessarily mean adding more evaluators. All the projects I’m currently managing are in partnership with other businesses, including universities and think tanks, subject matter experts and practitioners. I’m particularly enjoying partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts, through project reference groups and as co-evaluators. It’s been a fabulous way to deepen my practice and sharpen my own thinking.
As Michael Quinn Patton notes, ‘The great unexplored frontier is evaluation under conditions of complexity.’ I am excited to continue working in partnership with clients, participants and colleagues as we collectively lean into complexity.