Facing Forward

From previous blog posts (see here, here, here, and here), you can tell that I’m a fan of expanding my skills and learning in evaluation through conferences. Attending these events, hosted by the Canadian Evaluation Society and the American Evaluation Association, has also connected me into a diverse community of practitioners, academics, consultants, students, grantmakers, government officials, and more who are brought together by a common interest in the field of evaluation. Given this blend of learning, sharing, and connecting, I try to make it out to these conferences whenever circumstances allow.

The next Canadian Evaluation Society conference will be taking place in Vancouver from April 30 to May 3, and I’m excited for a couple of reasons – not least because Vancouver is a beautiful city to visit, relatively close1 to my home base of Saskatoon, and home to several evaluation colleagues and friends. What really piqued my interest is an initiative for the conference that’s being led by one of those colleagues and friends, Sarah Farina of Broadleaf Consulting. Evaluators are being encouraged to blog on the conference theme (Facing Forward: Innovation, Action and Reflection) in the months leading up to the conference. It’s a neat way to start the conversation well in advance of the meeting itself, and hopefully have it continue afterwards!

Evaluation’s Present and Future

Over the next 8 months, I’ll be delving more deeply into each component of the conference theme: today’s post will take more of an overarching view.

Innovation, Action, Reflection. My first thought on seeing these three words is that I wish that the organizing group hadn’t chosen this theme, as I would be tempted to use it as a tagline for my business! Unpacking the ideas a bit further, I think it reflects where evaluation is today and our current trajectory. Our field has had the reputation (with some historical basis) of acting as arbiters of a program’s fate by rendering simplistic thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgements, and thus raining on the parades of those who are trying to make a difference in the world. While evaluation continues to play a role in promoting accountability, to say that’s our only focus does the field a great disservice.

Based on my experience, the core element of evaluation is using applied social research skills to help those seeking to create change learn more about the work they do and how they can improve their efforts. Evaluators help organizations understand their successes (and failures), provide feedback and suggestions for change, and work alongside developing projects or initiatives to provide real-time data and insights. Yes, there will always be times where we have to pass judgement and say that this program did or did not work as intended to achieve its desired outcomes: that being said, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ask how those assessments can support action, encourage reflection, and ultimately promote innovation to tackle the complex issues we see affecting our communities and the world.

As noted above, my plan is to blog about each of those three aspects (Innovation, Action, Reflection) over the next several months leading up to the conference. For more information about the conference, check out

  1. Well, close by Canadian standards, at least.