Exploring new territories for evaluation

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Exploring new territories for evaluation
Drawing on action research, this paper recasts evaluation as ‘action inquiry’, an embedded evaluative learning practice that can help navigate complexity when enacting collective leadership. It is offered as an invitation to inquiry amongst a reasonably well-informed audience of policy makers and practitioners who work in and for public services. It will particularly interest those who provide research, evaluation and facilitation support, and those seeking to develop a more relational approach to research and evaluation. Action inquiry is a model of practising change together in environments where ‘nothing is clear, and everything keeps changing’ that significantly challenges the prevailing discourse on evaluation. Action inquiry can be wrapped around and enmeshed within initiatives and programmes that work with complexity - anywhere where success will depend on the quality of relationships that can be developed. The paper reviews some important interrelated concepts that underpin the ideals of collective leadership and public service reform and which confront deeply embedded traditional notions of leadership, expertise and participation. These offer important challenges to ideas about how change happens and recognise that relationships are at the heart of practising change. This warrants a re-examination of the high expectations of evidence-based or informed practice. Collective leadership makes new demands of evidence as it rests on help to determine ‘wise actions’ in real-life situations. This confronts the practical reality of how to work together in conditions often expressed as ‘dynamic’ or ‘turbulent’ and the added human complexities of power, emotions and relationships; too often these elements are denied or avoided aspects of a change process. Facilitated action inquiry makes these elements part of the conversations, in the midst of ‘work-as-we-are-doing-it’, to increase areas of choice for individuals and a group as a whole. Within public policy, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence about ‘what works’ yet change seems to be stubborn and slow. The paper explores some of the deep-rooted vestiges of a ‘hierarchy of evidence’ and assumptions about standardisation and generalisability that act as a ‘barrier to transformation’. These include the narrow framing of what counts as evidence and consequent relegation of community perspectives, lived experience and practice-based evidence. The paper acknowledges the clear appetite for different approaches to evaluation, especially those that better reflect deeply held values and avoid creating a culture of ‘gaming’, rooted in fear of failure and loss of funding, at the expense of learning. The need for new forms of developmental evaluative thinking, collaborative inquiry and action research to create embedded learning is well overdue. Action inquiry is a desirable and necessary response to the complex situations and challenges of human services and recognises the essentialness of knowledge co-production. It is a model of co-creation at every stage and endorses the idea that people learn from participation in evaluation and by testing theories of change through action. Action inquiry builds on the idea of inquiry, or a moment-to-moment awareness and quality of attention and draws from several elements of action research practice. It sees inquiry as an intervention in itself, one that furthermore, explicitly seeks to enhance the probability of the success of a programme, focus on learning, the collaborative development of practice-based knowledge and positive relationships. The paper highlights the importance of building inquiry into living systems, the role of facilitation, systemic inquiry, and evaluative thinking. It proposes an expansion of ideas of appreciation as a relational and collaborative practice that is a driver of emergence. Social recognition that acknowledges someone’s social value to the community and implies mutual moral obligations to cooperation and participation is particularly crucial in a work context that requires successful coordination and multiple contributions to achieve results across hierarchies of position, professional rank and sectors. Hence, appreciation goes beyond the idea of positivity to include social recognition, valuing more explicit forms of inquiry, building participants’ aspirations to design new social systems and acting in new ways to embed change. In developing this discussion, the paper contributes to emerging dialogues about the need for a model of ‘5th generation evaluation’. Such a model would be based on the idea that appreciative and challenging inquiry that is contextual, relational and open-minded will create better opportunities for change and development. The paper sets out some ‘provocative propositions’ that can help us to navigate this terrain, perhaps of a fledgling ‘5th generation approach’ to inquiry. Facilitated action inquiry can hold the key to developing both new knowledge and an adaptive, collaborative and improvisational skill-set, able to respond in new ways to systemic and complex issues on the ground. It’s common to hear the expression ‘it’s all about relationships’ and it is clearly time to shift our focus to relationships; not relationships as ‘things’, but as co-created and dynamic relational processes in which we are embedded. In this way we can bring new qualities to our talking to each other about our various and shared visions of a better future.
Collective Leadership for Scotland
Library Catalogue
Sharp, C. (2018). Exploring new territories for evaluation. Collective Leadership for Scotland. https://www.humanlearning.systems/uploads/collectiveleadershipreport1.pdf