What we’re taking forward from #aes19SYD

At last week’s Australian Evaluation Society International Evaluation Conference, we looked at what’s inside the box of evaluation and what’s beyond it, who holds the box and how we stack up. The aim was to un-box evaluation – to open it up to the communities we work with and ourselves to community knowledge – to realise its potential to improve lives.

As we are all key to achieving this aim, in the last session, we asked participants and panellists what they’re taking forward from #aes19SYD to shape the ever-evolving role of evaluation and evaluators. Here’s our team’s thoughts.

Holly: Tracy Westerman’s keynote was really inspiring. For her to be the first keynote at my first conference, it set the bar really high! I liked that she gave us ways that we can play a role, as individuals, in supporting communities and addressing rates of youth suicide. I also loved Fetterman’s post-conference workshop. He stressed the importance of making sure everyone is included in the evaluation process – it’s about listening to people about what they want, not us telling them what they want. It was great to hear that message is being reinforced internationally. And he practiced what he preached – connecting with delegates each day of the conference; he was really down to earth.

Jade: Tracy Westerman and Jane Davidson bookended the un-boxing better than I could have imagined. Tracy Westerman compelled us to think differently to address suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – by weaving personal story and passion with a strong case for change. Jane Davidson addressed the issues with the theory tree that had been bubbling away since day one and spoke to the core of our work – values. The more our work is value-neutral, the more open it is to toxic misinterpretation. We should be guided by how well programs work for the people who have historically experienced the most marginalisation. And, in between them, we had the unconference, which demonstrated the value of explicitly opening space for conversations – enabling people who might not normally to connect, reflect and process together. I hope this becomes a mainstay of the conference.

Lia: Evaluation is multi-faceted topic that is useful for learning and improving how the world works.

Georgia: I loved the variety of topics that were on offer in all the sessions; I feel like I was exposed to so many ideas over the course of the conference. I also loved giving my first presentations at a conference; having people come up to discuss them afterwards and ask interesting questions was really great. In terms of sessions I attended, the highlights would have to be hearing David Fetterman speak about empowerment evaluation, getting to know more about value for money with Julian King, and exploring evidence-based policy making and its challenges with Gary VanLandingham.

David: Tracy Westerman’s opening plenary was a fantastic introduction and set the tone for inclusiveness for the conference. I like her approach to collecting the right data through culturally appropriate assessments, to understand personal needs so that appropriate, tailored supports can be provided to people.

I also found the conversations around data quite insightful and valuable, and there was definitely a lot of interest in the digital disruption panel. It was good to be able to deliver a practical presentation on machine learning used on big data in evaluation to provide people some insight into how evaluation can adopt new methodologies.

Ruby: The conference was a great reminder of the importance of values and evaluative reasoning in our work. Jane Davidson put it well when she stressed, ‘the more our work is value neutral, the more open it is to toxic misinterpretation’. But which values should we be guided by, and why? She suggested the best asset test is how well a program works for those who have historically experienced the most marginalisation. This rang true for me, after attending the Indigenous panel as well as workshops about bringing a gendered lens to our work. I was also struck by the focus on systems thinking, and the need for evaluators to find a way to communicate multiple and complex narratives in a way that is accessible and useful to readers.

Alex: As an emerging evaluator (and first-time conference goer), the conference was a great opportunity to connect with and learn from other evaluators, and be exposed to new ideas. There was no one highlight – for me, what resonated most strongly was the sense of belonging to a profession of shared values, purpose and passion; and one that supports not only the people we are trying to impact but also each other.

Amber: Tracy’s open plenary was very insightful and effective in communicating the importance of inclusiveness and incorporating clinical measures into evaluation. David Fetterman’s workshop on empowerment evaluation was also a fantastic introduction to this powerful approach and as an early career evaluator, I appreciated how he delivered his workshop in an approachable and interactive way. For me, the workshop not only highlighted the necessity of community inclusion in evaluation, but also the importance of evaluators acting as ‘critical friends’ who can ask those critical questions while being a supportive ‘mentor’ or ‘coach’.

Emily: I’ve been tinkering with the idea that who we are as evaluators is as critical to the success of our evaluations as what we know. It was a delight to facilitate a wide-ranging panel discussion between Kate McKegg, Jax Weschler, Jess Dart, Adrian Field and Jen Riley, which touched on this idea. Kate and Jen both spoke about the role of bravery—challenging ourselves to be brave when we’d really rather run away or do things the done way because it might be easier—in evaluation. It’s a relief to know that even really experienced evaluators often need to work hard to be brave!

Rachel: As always it was lovely to catch up with friends and fellow evaluators from across the country and beyond. It was great to see that the sessions generated so many thought-provoking and insightful conversations and that these have continued well beyond the closing plenary. I enjoyed the opportunity to hear from service providers and commissioners and learn how we can be better responding to their needs. I was also very proud to see so many ARTD staff presenting and contributing to the evaluation field.

Ken: I enjoyed participating in Francesca Demetriou, Eunice Sotelo and Aneta Cram’s interactive workshop, ‘The early career evaluator experience: exploring pathways into and up in evaluation’. Having been interviewed for their report prior to the conference, I was interested in engaging with the facilitators and other participants and learning about their experiences and why we consider ourselves ‘emerging’ evaluators. It was interesting to see the diverse range of educational and professional backgrounds that now work in the sector.

Jane Davidson’s plenary on ‘Unboxing the core like our lives depend on it – because they do’ and her reflections on rubrics and when they are suitable made me reflect on a recent ARTD project involving rubrics and when they might be needed again.

It was great to see many of my colleagues presenting and sharing their insights and experiences. Well done to all! I look forward to Brisbane 2020!

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