Is it time for a MEval?

A great deal of work is currently being undertaken by evaluation societies to develop professional recognition, either through qualification or credentialing. The aim here, in a sense, is to narrow the professional field of people in evaluation to those who are sufficiently competent. The implication is that the field of evaluation is moving from a ‘Wild West’ to a more regulated and dependable market: hire an evaluator and one can be assured that they will get the job done to a pre-disposed level of professional quality.

There is near universal agreement that this is a good thing; and an important step in developing the field of evaluation. Indeed, establishing a common form of professional recognition would, no doubt, reduce transaction costs for evaluation commissioning agents, and most likely reinforce the number of good quality evaluations. It is believed that this, in turn, would lead to greater utility from evaluations – and thus more accountable and responsive development programmes.

Inspired by a podcast with Michael Scriven, however, this post asks whether the search for evaluation quality needs to also look beyond the narrowing of the field to recognised professionals. The analogy for the vocation of evaluation drawn by Michael is that of a train. Programme evaluation is the first station at which the train is stopping; but ultimately it will inevitably continue its journey and challenge for a place at the centre of society. He cites early signs of this as the shift towards evaluation of complexity, and gives an example of evaluating the peer review mechanism as the underlying staple of natural science quality assurance.

The question for evaluators who have learnt their craft in the field of social programmes evaluation, then, is whether there is scope to engage beyond the boundaries implicit in the professionalisation of the programme evaluation function. Can – and should – the evaluation world view be strengthened beyond these boundaries? Naturally, many people and organisations already use evaluative methods outside of the programme evaluation and social development contexts, but it is only in these areas that the push for professionalisation appears to have significant traction. Examples include the work by the Canadian Evaluation Society, the European and UK Evaluation Societies, and the International Development Evaluation Association.

A similar question was faced by the proponents of capitalist business development at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Their response was to look beyond the manager or administrator as tightly regulated professions. Arguably, by steadily embracing the concept of the MBA – for which multiple models and methods emerged – the corporate world both enhanced the professionalisation of management and maintained openness. One can study an MBA today and receive recognition for the set of skills and modality of thought that implies in a whole range of careers beyond business. Unfortunately, the same cannot (yet) be said of a vocational award in evaluation.

And yet, in many ways, evaluation is far more of field of ‘first principles’ than business. Whilst is is often conflated with the sciences, the purpose of evaluation – and the evaluative approach – is different from the scientific purpose of enhancing original knowledge. It can quite reasonably be argued that the raison d’être of evaluation is ‘decision making’. An evaluation that does not enable or result in a decision has not served its purpose: even if that decision is to carry on existing efforts. This borrows from both the sciences and the arts, but it sits in a distinct camp that is different from either.

Perhaps, then, there is a case for the evaluation community to also look ‘outwards’ – to consider qualifications as a means to expand the evaluation community rather than narrow it. In other words, to spread the evaluative mindset. One can imagine, for example, the emergence of a new academic qualification, that of the MEval (Masters of Evaluation) and its derivatives (BEval, DipEval, DEval). Such a qualification would be based on the ‘evaluative ethic’ and teach a core set of evaluation principles within a particular specialist subject. For example, one might easily imagine a MEval International Development, or a BEval Humanitarian Management. Under this approach, the future, however, might hold such possibilities as a MEval Global Media, BEval International Finance, or DEval Social Enterprise.

Based on the experience of other ‘generic qualifications’ – such as MBA, LLM and MEng – an MEval would need to emerge gradually as an offer from academic institutions, rather than as a centrally defined and controlled award. The building blocks for this already exist with programmes such as the Masters of Evaluation from the University of Melbourne. This implies a degree of openness, flexibility and variability. But it also promises to spread the value of evaluative thinking beyond the niche that it currently occupies, whilst acting as a gateway for professionalisation of evaluation that looks beyond programme evaluation. From the point of view of this blog, however, this openness seems well aligned to the value of creating social justice through collaboration that is increasingly being practiced.

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