How Is Evaluation Political?

How Is Evaluation Political?

The term “politics” has been applied so broadly to so many different phenomena that it has all but lost its meaning. It has come to stand for everything from power plays and machinations within a school or organization to political campaigns or relations among governmental agencies. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary reflects these different meanings as it defines politics variously as

• “the art or science concerned with government. . . .” • “the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental

policy” • “competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power or

leadership” • “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (Merriam-

Webster, 2009)

So, how is the context of evaluation political? It is political in each of the ways cited in this definitions! Evaluation is most often concerned with governmental programs, whether they are programs funded or operated at the international, national, state, or local level.1 At the international level, the European Commis- sion, the governing body of the European Union, has mandated cross-country evaluations in Europe and, as a result, has introduced evaluation to many European countries, particularly those in Eastern Europe. In the United States, as we noted in the previous chapter, modern evaluation began through mandates from the federal government during the 1970s, but now is actively conducted at all levels. In addition, evaluation is quite active in state departments of education and in local school districts.

Evaluation is, of course, concerned with “guiding or influencing govern- ment policy,” the second definition, but perhaps of even more importance, eval- uators are working with individuals and groups of stakeholders who are also concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy. These stakeholders want to influence government policy for many reasons, including helping their constituents and improving government and society. However, one reason for their interest in influencing government policy concerns the third definition: These stakeholders are competing with each other for resources, power, and leadership. Evaluations serve executive and legislative decision makers who make decisions about funding programs; about continuing, expanding, or cut- ting programs; and about policies that influence those programs. Evaluations

1In the United States, many evaluations take place in nonprofit organizations, which, by definition, are nongovernmental organizations. Nevertheless, we will consider these organizations governmental, or political, for the sake of this discussion because in the last few decades, as the U.S. government moved to privatization, many social services that had previously been delivered by government agencies were contracted out to nonprofit organizations. These government contracts are a large part of what prompts nonprofit organizations to conduct evaluations, and their interaction with government agencies places them in a similar political context.

68 Part I • Introduction to Evaluation

also serve program managers and other stakeholder groups who are competing with other groups for funding, for scarce resources, and for leadership in devel- oping and implementing interventions for solving societal problems. Policymak- ers and managers, and other stakeholders, are competing for resources, power, and leadership, and evaluation is a powerful tool for them to use in arguing for resources for their group or program. Thus, evaluation is part of the political system and operates within a political context.

Finally, of course, evaluations take place in organizations where complex relationships exist among many groups—in a school among parents, teachers, students, principals, and the central office; in social welfare departments among clients, social workers, managers, and policymakers. Evaluations are political be- cause even the most basic evaluation can upset or change these relationships. The evaluator may include different groups in the decision making about the evaluation, the data collection may prompt stakeholders to reveal beliefs or attitudes they had not considered or had not voiced, and the results often illus- trate the multiple ways in which the program is viewed and, of course, its suc- cesses and failures. Thus, evaluation work, in itself, is political.

Recall that the very purpose of evaluation is to make a judgment about the merit or worth of a program or policy. In this way, evaluation differs from research. Evaluation is not solely the collection of data using social science research methods. Instead, it involves making a judgment about the quality of the thing being stud- ied. As such, evaluation is highly political. Researchers do not make a judgment; they draw conclusions. Evaluators, however, make a judgment. That judgment may be about a part of a program, as often occurs in formative evaluation, or about the program or policy as a whole to assist in summative decisions. But moving from data to judgment also moves evaluators into the political realm. Further, evaluative judgments often include recommendations for change and such changes are political. These judgments and recommendations have implications for the competition between stakeholder groups and individuals for resources, leadership, and power.

Evaluation in a Political Environment: A Mixed Blessing? For many evaluators, an appealing aspect of evaluation is that it allows them to influence the real world of policy and practice. Researchers are more detached from that world. Research may influence policy or practice, but the researcher has no obligation to make that connection. The evaluator does. Evaluations are judged by their utility, and designing and implementing an evaluation that is likely to be used is one of an evaluator’s responsibilities. So, in order to achieve use, evaluators must attend to the political context of the program or policy they are studying.

Many evaluators tend to view politics as a bad thing, but we suggest there is a more enlightened view. Thoughtful evaluators of publicly funded programs view politics as the way laws and program regulations are made, the way indi- viduals and groups influence the government, and the very essence of what enables governments to respond to the needs of those individuals and groups. Indeed, without politics, government programs would be less responsive to public

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