Level Up: Growing Your Approach to Participatory Evaluation

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been engaged in a lot of conversations about participatory action evaluation (herewithin participatory evaluation) lately. It seems as if we are all in our corners of the country, processing the daily cries for social justice and reflecting on how we can better contribute to the movement. With today’s blog, I want to start an even larger conversation in our community: how do you see participatory evaluation contributing to the social justice movement? What are some of your favorite ways to incorporate participatory methods into the evaluation process? And what are some of your favorite resources? To follow, I’d like to share some of my own reflections on these questions. If you would like to share your thoughts, check out the end of this blog for how you can join in the conversation.

The Value of Participatory Evaluation

There are a number of benefits that a participatory evaluation approach offers. To me, the most important is the empowerment of the involved communities. Done well, a participatory evaluation enables them to learn theories, mindsets, frameworks and skills from the evaluators involved. At its best, a community-led participatory evaluation offers the opportunity for its members to ask questions about the world around them and take informed action based on their learnings. I’ve been using this approach since I was an 8th grade teacher, empowering my students to identify and explore their passions through targeted inquiry. The unit taught them skills such as writing, math, history and citizenship and was always one of their favorites because they were in the driver’s seat.

I also appreciate how participatory evaluation turns traditional research on its head. Our country has a long and fraught history of abuse of vulnerable communities at the hands of researchers. While examples such as the Tuskegee Experiments and genetic research of the Havasupai tribe are often provided as examples, the list of offenses is embarrassingly long. This has created mistrust, lack of engagement, and at times outright hostility towards researchers. Participatory evaluation done well, however, challenges the purpose of research and posits that the learning should be for the advancement of the community from which the information comes. It centers itself on providing equal or greater value to the community than it does to the evaluator. It creates a fertile ground where trust and relationships can grow.

Reflecting on Your Participatory Evaluation Style

If all of this sounds fabulous to you, you may be wondering how to engage in participatory evaluation. Or, if you already do, you may be wondering if there are ways to do the work even better. In the rest of the blog, I’d like to take a look at a couple of frameworks for conceptualizing and reflecting on participatory evaluation practices.

But first, a distinction: there is a difference between participatory methods and participatory evaluation. Participatory methods are the ways to approach evaluation work. They are creative structures that engage people in decision-making. The more frequently participatory methods are successfully utilized throughout the evaluation, the closer the evaluation gets to being participatory. At its fullest potential, it’s the community that takes the lead in every stage of the evaluation, offering participation to the evaluators when their expertise is desired. This could be envisioned on a continuum, such as in Figure 1.

While the fully realized version of participatory evaluation is not feasible for every evaluation, there are always opportunities to get closer to the ideal. In order to conceptualize how this might look, we could consider an evaluation project to be broken down into five distinct phases in which decisions are made (Figure 2). By taking a critical look at whose voices are influencing and ultimately making decisions at each of the phases, we can begin to identify areas for growth towards a more participatory approach.

Being a Participatory Evaluator

Another important ingredient to a successful participatory evaluation is having the proper mindset and skills. For example, any evaluator interested in conducting participatory evaluations needs to be self-aware about his or her privileges and biases. Without a deep understanding of both, it is easy to undermine the values and intentions behind participatory evaluation.

Participatory evaluators also benefit from strong facilitation skills. In particular, they are able to build trust, build relationships, create a safe and welcoming environment, solicit feedback from everyone in the room, summarize discussions in a useful ways, be attentive to the needs of the group, be able to change plans and improvise as needed, keep meetings engaging, and have confidence and staying power when things get difficult (SEI, 2008).

Rad Resource: For more ways that you as an evaluator can show up in a truly participatory fashion, check out “Why am I Always Being Researched?” by Chicago Beyond.

The Benefits of Participatory Evaluation

The quality of the evaluation improves as the evaluation nears a fully participatory approach, from the resulting data, the quality of life of the community, and the relationship between the community and the evaluators. You can find concrete examples of the improvements realized from incorporating participatory practices at each of the stages of evaluation in Figure 3, below.

Now it’s your turn: How has your use of participatory evaluation contributed to the social justice movement? What are some of your favorite ways to incorporate participatory methods into the evaluation process? What are some of your favorite resources? Share with us in the comments below or in our Evaluators’ Slack Channel, where you can comment, share links, and even upload resources. It’s easy to join and free to use. We’ll see you there!

This post was originally featured on the American Evaluation Association’s blog, AEA365 (www.aea365.org/blog).