Stop treating program evaluation like a diet!

Posted on June 7, 2017

Program evaluation is a valuable tool for determining what results you’re achieving for clients and the community. And yet, virtually every major review of government in recent history has suggested that government agencies need to evaluate programs better and more often. As far back as the 1970s, the Coombs Royal Commission into Public Administration noted that:

“It is likely that efficiency will be stimulated if it is known that performance will be assessed and that those responsible can be called to account for it … Judgments in the process of accountability can be given greater precision in those activities which are measurable, or where performance in them can be assessed by measurable indicators.”

There are a number of reasons program evaluation isn’t a priority for government agencies. The NSW Commission of Audit has stated the use of program evaluation has been compromised by:

  • a lack of information on performance, cost, goals and objectives, linkages and program history
  • evaluations typically being done by the agency and people involved in running the program, which creates a conflict of interest
  • insufficient resources being devoted to program evaluations
  • the results of program evaluations being undermined by vested and sectional interests that inevitably develop in support of programs.

Apart from resourcing, time, petty politics and challenges with developing a logical approach to program evaluation, one of the key reasons we have observed is that many agencies treat program evaluation like a diet. We all know we need to eat healthy foods, but in many cases our diet fails because we do it on a short-term, ad hoc basis, rather than integrating the new way of eating into our everyday lifestyle. As a result, the challenges become overwhelming and we revert to the previous pattern of behaviour.

Similarly, program evaluation is often an afterthought rather than an integral part of program planning and delivery. It’s a one-off event rather than a sustainable part of the program and as such, often doomed to fail. To lift the quality and usefulness of program evaluation, it’s important to stop treating it like a diet and start integrating it into the work priorities and strategic direction of your organisation. It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to do this is to stop calling it program evaluation! The term currently has negative connotations and implies that it’s a one-off event or something special.

Instead, you should think of program evaluation as a normal part of what you do. For example, Nexus is currently working with a NSW Government agency on evaluation capability building and is linking it to the organisation’s core business and strategic priorities of improving health outcomes. Similarly, rather than promote ‘program evaluation’ in the abstract, the NSW Department of Education has piggybacked it onto the local schools initiative, as an ongoing improvement and accountability tool. The shift in language can be very powerful.

If you need to stop treating your program evaluation like a diet, get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.