Despite being an established health program evaluator, I am still discovering what evaluation really is and where its true potential lies.

Evaluation is widely recognised as a necessary part of the funding cycle. In other words, where there is government spending and investment, there is evaluation.  This is a good thing but it is time for evaluation to reach its full potential as a powerful enabler of social progress and empowerment, which is something I think it is yet to achieve.

In my mind, as an evaluator, there are two under-tapped areas of potential in evaluation:

Evaluation as an enabler and mechanism for community involvement in health programs – at all stages from initial scoping and needs assessment, to relationship building, to project planning and implementation, to measuring outcomes and refining processes, and to developing programs into sustainable, long-lasting initiatives that build the capacity of the community, defined with and by them

Evaluation as an enabler and mechanism for motivating, up-skilling, and retaining a passionate, committed, smart, values-driven health program implementation workforce (project workers, advisory group members, and so on) (Hooray for these committed and passionate people!)

I believe in the immense value of formative evaluation.  I believe that evaluation should be on the agenda from the very nexus of a project and all the way along, and even beyond its funding cycle.

I see evaluation as a process of ongoing reflection, critical thinking, and refining, clarifying and tightening aims, processes and roles in the health program, ideally with community members/program beneficiaries sitting firmly ‘at the table’.

I have seen this happen beautifully when, as the evaluator, I have ‘walked alongside’ the project/program, built relationships with the project team, been present at community events, and checked in regularly to keep minds ticking about evaluation and to keep eyes open for opportunities to capture data.  Data in this sense is typically anything that captures the lived experiences of those involved in the program/project (community members/project workers/governance group members/funding bodies and so on), as well as a range of other forms of qualitative and quantitative data about the process and outcomes.

So, what is evaluation, really?

Evaluation, in my mind, is a living, evolving, relational process of exploring, capturing, analysing, synthesising, sharing, refining, show-casing and utilising the lived experience of a program, project, venture or initiative.  Evaluation happens in real-time.  It grows with the program and as an evaluator, I am very much involved, and yes, subjective!  My lived experience is in there too.

Relationships are developed, connections established, communities of practice formed, lessons learned, mentors and mentees found, stories captured and treated as precious artefacts and then shared for the purpose of maximising the potential of the program to achieve its aims of serving the community.

When these are the outputs of an evaluation, the potential uses of the evaluation are broad. We end up with material which holds real power to persuade and raise awareness among policy makers and consumers alike.  And communities can take away a piece of the pie at long last, as they decide what to do next with the evaluation findings … and that’s the part I am most excited to witness and support.

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