Interacting with the Political System.

Interacting with the Political System.

Vestman and Conners (2006) describe three different positions in which evaluators may interact with the political system:

1. The evaluator as value-neutral. In this position, the evaluator tries to protect or separate the evaluation from politics in order to maintain its perceived legitimacy and objectivity. Evaluators are rational methodologists who collect data and

70 Part I • Introduction to Evaluation

provide it to stakeholders. Judgments about quality are then made by the stake- holders. The evaluator works to remain separate and independent and, thus, maintain the objectivity of the evaluation.

2. The evaluator as value-sensitive. In this position, the evaluator works to maintain the technical aspects of the evaluation, the provision of information, as separate from politics. However, the evaluator recognizes that other elements of the evaluation— in particular providing judgments, considering ethical issues, and encouraging democratic values—require the evaluator to learn of and become involved in the political environment.

3. The evaluator as value-critical. Along a continuum of whether it is possible and whether it is desirable to separate evaluation from politics, the evaluator taking this position believes that values are inextricably part of politics and that it is critical for the evaluator to become involved in politics to actively articulate those values. Evaluation and politics are viewed from a larger perspective in this third position. Vestman and Conners note that the value-critical evaluator “views politics as some- thing integrated in our everyday life,” and so “there can be no separation between evaluation and politics and therefore no neutral value or operational position taken by the evaluator” (2006, p. 235). The evaluator, then, takes an active role in consid- ering what is in the public good, and serves “as a cooperative and structuring force in our understanding of society” (2006, p. 236). (See also Dahler-Larsen [2003])

Most evaluators today recognize that the first position is unrealistic. This position is one that is frequently taken by applied researchers who move into evaluation and are less familiar with the purposes of evaluation and its goals; in particular, the importance of use. Weiss (1998a, 1998b), Datta (1999), and Patton (1988, 2008a) have all noted that a principal reason that the evaluations of the 1970s were not used was the failure of evaluators to consider the political context. Most evaluators today recognize the need to balance the technical aspects of their study with a need to learn more about the political context to see that their evaluation is useful to at least some stakeholders in the political environment and to ensure that the evalua- tion is one that furthers democratic values of participation and equality. Our view is that the third position has elements of validity—politics and evaluation, at least in- formal evaluation, are part of everyday life, data collection is not a truly neutral ac- tivity, and evaluators should consider the public good. However, we do think it is important to attend to the view that formal evaluation and evaluators conducting those evaluations provide a different kind of information, one that addresses peo- ple’s concerns with accountability in today’s society. It is important that the results of evaluation studies be trusted; hence, the evaluator must pay attention to pre- serving the validity of the study and the perceived independence of the results. (You will read more on the ethical codes of evaluation later in this chapter. See also Chapter 8 on participatory and transformative approaches as means for achieving these goals.) However, the three positions developed by Vestman and Conner illus- trate the types of relationships that can exist between evaluation and politics and the important issues to consider in those relationships. They help us, then, to reflect

Chapter 3 • Political, Interpersonal, and Ethical Issues in Evaluation 71

on the role one should play in specific evaluations. That role may differ from one evaluation to the next, depending on the context of the evaluation.

In this section, we have tried to make you aware that evaluation does occur in a political environment, why that is so, and how knowledge of the political context can be an advantage to an evaluator in bringing about use and, ultimately, helping improve government and society. We have also illustrated some of the roles or positions that evaluators can take within that environment and the risks and potential benefits of these different roles. In the next section, we will explore in more depth some of the actions that an evaluator can take to work effectively in a political environment.

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