Later this week the largest gathering of professional program evaluators in the world will convene here in Washington, DC as the American Evaluation Association launches its annual conference, Evaluation 2017. While many exciting activities will occur during the week, the conference theme -- "From Learning to Action" -- provides us all the opportunity to reflect on one basic question: why do I evaluate?
We live in a society that often focuses, perhaps too much, on the consequences of failure. For organizations and grantees, failing to deliver on promised activities can result in a loss of funding. In government, current political discourse would have us believe programs that operate imperfectly can or should be terminated altogether.
Instead of focusing on the consequences of failure, we could choose to focus on the benefits of failure. Consider failure from a personal rather than organizational perspective. In childhood, we learn quickly from mistakes like touching a hot pan on the stovetop or, in my case, shooting your brother with a bb gun. The benefits are that we generally avoid touching hot objects or take greater care in gun safety in the future. Over the course of our lives we make thousands of "mistakes" that productively inform our future behaviors.
Learning from failure is a natural part of the human experience, just as much as learning from success. Because organizations are comprised of humans, we should expect that both failure and success are similarly an organic component of organizational learning.
A learning culture must become more pervasive and routine in organizations and in our government -- it's how we improve, it's how we enhance ourselves, and it's how we make the world a better place to live. Learning cultures are what drive continuous improvements in the outcomes that matter. Learning cultures are how we ensure those in our society who need help and support receive effective assistance. And learning cultures are how we develop the information to act, ensuring our children grow into a better world that we have prepared for them. Recognizing that failure is inevitable and can be used to productively improve is a key component of a learning culture.
Why I Evaluate
This perspective on the purpose of a learning culture is one that is very timely for me. My son was born just over one week ago. His entry into the world has left me reflecting in recent days on many of life's priorities and the process of learning.
It's difficult to imagine becoming a parent that only admonishes my son's inevitable "failures" in life. It's also difficult to imagine only praising his successes. Both failure and success will present incredible learning opportunities and invaluable teaching moments.
How we act in response to any form of information is a direct reflection on our values. In my son and in my government, I value continuous improvement to be the best person or entity possible. I value a recognition that even in mistakes or failures, we can always improve ourselves to be our best reflection of the world. I value learning because it enables action in our lives, for our families, and for our futures.
So why do I evaluate? I evaluate to learn and improve through appropriate action. I evaluate to make the world a little better for my son. I evaluate to help make society stronger.
#WhyEval: A Call for Reflection
Evaluation is not merely a profession, it derives from a greater motivation, goal, and purpose. During the American Evaluation Association's conference this week, I encourage you to consider what drives you to support evaluation:
- What is your motivation?
- What is your goal?
- What is your purpose?
As you reflect, I also encourage you to share why you evaluate (#WhyEval) with others as we all strive to better understand how learning segues to action in our own work and in our own lives.
NICK HART, PH.D. is the President of Washington Evaluators in 2017 and Director of the Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.