I am new to the field of evaluation, and the most important thing that I learned in my first nine months is that effective communication is critical to the success of the evaluation of a project. Whether primarily virtual or face-to-face, knowing the communication preferences of your client is important. Knowing the client’s schedule is also important. For example, if you are working with faculty, having a copy of their teaching and office hours schedule for each semester can help.
While having long lead times to get to know the principal investigator and project team is desirable and can promote strong relationship building in advance of implementing evaluation strategies, that isn’t always possible. With my first project, contracts were finalized with the client and evaluators only days before a major project event. There was little time to prepare and no opportunity to get to know the principal investigator or grant team before launching into evaluation activities. In preparation, I had an evaluation plan, a copy of the proposal as submitted, and other project-related documents. Also, I was working with a veteran evaluator who knew the PI and had experience evaluating another project for the client. Nonetheless, there were surprises that caught both the veteran evaluator and me off guard. As the two evaluators worked with the project team to hone in on the data needed to make the evaluation stronger, we discovered that the goals, objectives, and some of the activities had been changed during the project’s negotiations with NSF prior to funding. As evaluators, we discovered that we were working from a different playbook than the PI and other team members! The memory of this discovery still sends chills down my back!
A mismatch regarding communication styles and anticipated response times can also get an evaluation off to a rocky start. If not addressed, unmet expectations can lead to disappointment and animosity. In this case, face-to-face interaction was key to keeping the evaluation moving forward. Even when a project is clearly doing exciting and impactful work, it isn’t always possible to collect all of the data called for in the evaluation plan. I’ve learned firsthand that the tug-of-war that exists between an evaluator’s desire and preparation to conduct a rigorous evaluation and the need to be flexible and to work within the constraints of a particular situation isn’t always comfortable.
From this experience, I learned some important points that I think will be helpful to new evaluators.
- Establishing a trusting relationship can be as important as conducting the evaluation. Find out early if you and the principal investigator are compatible and can work together. The PI and evaluator should get to know each other and establish some common expectations at the earliest possible date.
- Determine how you will communicate and ensure a common understanding of what constitutes a reasonable response time for emails, telephone calls, or requests for information from either party. Individual priorities differ and thus need to be understood by both parties.
- Be sure that you ask at the onset if there have been changes to the goals and objectives for the project since the proposal was submitted. Adjust the evaluation plan accordingly.
- Determine the data that can be and will be collected and who will be responsible for providing what information. In some situations, it helps to secure permission to work directly with an institutional research office or internal evaluator for a project to collect data.
- When there are differences of opinion or misunderstandings, confront them head on. If the relationship continues to be contentious in any way, changing evaluators may be the best solution.
I hope that some of my comments will help other newcomers to realize that the yellow brick road does have some potential potholes and road closures.