I’m completing my second year as the external evaluator of a three-year ATE project. As a first-time evaluator, I have to confess that I’ve had a lot to learn.
The first surprise was that, in spite of my best intentions, my evaluation process seems always a bit messy. A grant proposal is just that: a proposed plan. It is an idealized vision of what may come. Therefore, the evaluation plan based on that vision is also idealized. Over time, I have had to reconsider my evaluation as grant activities and circumstances evolved—what data is to be collected, how it is to be collected, or whether that data is to be collected at all.
I also thought that my evaluations would somehow reveal something startling to my project team. In reality, my evaluations have served as a mirror to them, acknowledging what they have done and mostly confirming what they already suspect to be true. In a few instances, the manner in which I’ve analyzed data has allowed the team to challenge some assumptions made along the way. In general, though, my work is less revelatory than I had expected.
Similarly, I anticipated my role as a data analyst would be more important. However, this project was designed to use iterative continuous improvement and so the team has met frequently to analyze and consider anecdotal data and impromptu surveys. This more immediate feedback on project activities was regularly used to guide changes. So while my planned evaluation activities and formal data analysis has been important, it has been a less significant contribution than I had expected.
Instead, I’ve added the greatest value to the team by serving as a critical colleague. Benefiting from distance from the day-to-day work, I can offer a more objective, outsider’s view of the project activities. By doing so, I’m able to help a talented, innovative, and ambitious team consider their options and determine whether or not investing in certain activities promotes the goals of the grant or moves the team tangentially. This, of course, is critical for a small grant on a small budget.
Over my short time involved in this work, I see that by being brought into the project from the beginning, and encouraged to offer guidance along the way, I’ve assessed the progress made in achieving the grant goals, and I have been able to observe and document how individuals work together effectively to achieve those goals. This insight highlights another important service evaluators can offer: to tell the stories of successful teams to their stakeholders.
As evaluators, we are accountable to our project teams and also to their funders. It is in the funders’ interest to learn how teams work effectively to achieve results. I had not expected it, but I now see that it’s in the teams’ interest for the external evaluators to understand their successful collaboration and bring it to light.