Fearing evaluation

September 4, 2008

Why does the word ‘evaluation’ strike fear in the heart of many people I work with? As part of a training day with artists and community organisations last week I explored some of the myths about this seemingly powerful concept.
It’s done to us, not with us
It’s about and for funders
It’s a waste of time
It takes us away from the ‘real’ work
It’s negative
It’s retrospective
It’s costly
And on and on the list went – relentlessly negative and profoundly depressing. That’s of course if you are to take those statements at face value. The myths are all about disempowerment – as though evaluation were a bean counting exercise in justification imposed from outside. As Adam Phillips says

In the so-called arts it has always been acknowledged that many of the things we value most – the gods and God, love and sexuality, mourning and amusement, character and inspiration, the past and the future – are neither measurable or predictable. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons they are so abidingly important to us.

So it’s as though if we count, or measure, or notice or quantify we erase the power of the arts to impact on some deep level. And it’s as though there’s one version of events (and indeed one ‘report’) that must be agreed upon. But that’s not really the case. Many of those who attended the training day equated evaluation with description skipping the two important steps in between. Evaluation contains the word ‘value’ and in order to embark on an evaluation we have to connect with our own values – what’s important? Why are we doing this? What are we hoping to achieve? Then we have to take the values, take the descriptions and make some judgements about what happened and why, what didn’t and why and that leads us in the direction of evaluation. Ultimately evaluation is research in the service of learning – from disempowerment (a fear of erasing the power of the work) to reimpowerment (reframing evaluation as a creative learning experience for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’) in the knowledge that what works for one stakeholder may be very different from what works for another.