The V in Evaluation

“It is the value feature that distinguishes evaluation from other types of inquiry, such as basic research, clinical epidemiology, investigative journalism, or public polling” (Fournier, 2005 ).

Evaluation has developed a wide range of methods and analytical tools; endorsed guidelines and competency frameworks; defined systematic approaches to evaluation practice and generated a distinctive logic of operation. An exponential increase in the number of evaluation associations worldwide testifies to the vitality of the evaluation endeavour.  Despite these advances the distinctive identity of evaluation as a discipline let alone a profession remains contested.

Why? First and foremost because social researchers, auditors and management consultants who do not recognize evaluation as their primary occupation dominate the evaluation market.  For many of them evaluation is a set of tools and ideas that helps them do a better job within their chosen profession. They readily acknowledge that evaluation provides a convenient bridge to the real world of policy making but from their perspective evaluation should not aspire to become an autonomous profession.

Scepticism and relativism about what is right or wrong, just or unjust underlies the "value free" doctrine that many client-oriented evaluation practitioners embrace. Their deliberate distancing from values is grounded in the belief that there is no objective truth about values that is independent of the idiosyncratic aspirations, emotions and attitudes of individuals. It is time for evaluators to challenge this posture and to affirm that moral philosophy is a legitimate knowledge domain fully compatible with the scientific method and part and parcel of the evaluation process.  

Ethical principles are independent of individual perceptions, ambitions and interests.  Moral convictions are built into human genes, cultures and history. Notions of fairness and justice are embedded in the universal human rights agenda. Yes, consensus about moral truths is often elusive and ethical dilemmas can be hard to resolve.  But some moral claims are demonstrably true and others are demonstrably false and for the rest it is incumbent on individuals and groups to engage in systematic deliberation about what is right and what is wrong in a given context (Dworkin, 2011)

This is what responsible behaviour implies, what human dignity demands and what a democratic society stands for. It is also where evaluation comes into its own.  It follows that the V that lies at the core of the evaluation term is precisely what distinguishes evaluation from other disciplines. Whereas social scientists deliberately steer clear of evaluative conclusions, the evaluation process sets values and standards against which policies or programs are assessed following empirical investigations.

Attesting to the rigor, validity and legitimacy of evaluative claims and drawing their implications for decision making is the core mandate of value-based evaluation . Evaluation identifies what stakeholders consider valuable and it reports findings that reflect distinct perspectives and interests. The participatory process amplifies the voices of the poor and the disadvantaged.  In particular democratic evaluation involves the transparent exposition of contrasting views and interests as part of an open, value based debate leading to principled decisions. Value drives the entire process and it is primarily what makes evaluation what it is. It is also why evaluators should not be shy to assert their distinctive identity.  

References
Dworkin R. (2011), Justice for Hedgehogs, Harvard University Press
Fournier  D. M (2005), in Mathison, S. ed. Encyclopedia of Evaluation, Sage
Scriven, M. (1991). Evaluation thesaurus (4th ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Comments

An excellent blog which raises many thoughts. First of all the V-word means the F-word in Finnish which makes it all the more interesting in terms of what values are ontologically and epistemologically correct. Bob seems to be a keen adherant to cognitive theories of value who asserts that "ascriptions to value function logically as statements of fact". However, there are several of us who subscribe to non-cognitive theories of value, thinking that values are more or less expressions of feeling or prescriptions for some issue. Anyway, ethics is a seminal part of evaluation, which means that the evaluator´s cognitive rucksack needs to be filled with axiological knowledge, at least with some theories of value. This could hopefully be discussed within the forthcoming VEPR workshop in London, in April.

In my view theories of value are at the core and not something that just have in your backpack. It is important for evaluators to embrace this. As Bob mentioned "Evaluation identifies what stakeholders consider valuable and it reports findings that reflect distinct perspectives and interests." It fits perfectly within a democratic society. But a value approach also requires that evaluators challenge stakeholders on their perception of value. And some would call this politics....

Michael Scriven' keynote address at the EES Conference made clear that evaluation is a profession that has to take an ethical stand properly backed up by valid evidence and rigorous reasoning. This is a must if we are to perform our social duty. Evaluation is not simply rich description and data analysis. We can leave such tasks to social scientists. Nor can we get away with passing the buck and relying on clients' values to judge outcomes. This is what management consultants do. In order to deserve the evaluator label we should fulfill a crucial professional duty: to assess the legitimacy and relevance of all stakeholders' values and to be explicit about the values that underlie our own evaluative judgments. Ethics is at the core of the evaluation discipline.