Evaluation is a methodological area that is closely related to, but distinguishable from more traditional social research. Evaluation utilizes many of the same methodologies used in traditional social research, but because evaluation takes place within a political and organizational context, it requires group skills, management ability, political dexterity, sensitivity to multiple stakeholders and other skills that social research in general does not rely on as much. Here we introduce the idea of evaluation and some of the major terms and issues in the field.
Definitions of Evaluation
Probably the most frequently given definition is:
Evaluation is the systematic assessment of the worth or merit of some object
This definition is hardly perfect. There are many types of evaluations that do not necessarily result in an assessment of worth or merit — descriptive studies, implementation analyses, and formative evaluations, to name a few. Better perhaps is a definition that emphasizes the information-processing and feedback functions of evaluation. For instance, one might say:
Evaluation is the systematic acquisition and assessment of information to provide useful feedback about some object
Both definitions agree that evaluation is a systematic endeavor and both use the deliberately ambiguous term ‘object’ which could refer to a program, policy, technology, person, need, activity, and so on. The latter definition emphasizes acquiring and assessing information rather than assessing worth or merit because all evaluation work involves collecting and sifting through data, making judgements about the validity of the information and of inferences we derive from it, whether or not an assessment of worth or merit results.
The Goals of Evaluation
The generic goal of most evaluations is to provide “useful feedback” to a variety of audiences including sponsors, donors, client-groups, administrators, staff, and other relevant constituencies. Most often, feedback is perceived as “useful” if it aids in decision-making. But the relationship between an evaluation and its impact is not a simple one — studies that seem critical sometimes fail to influence short-term decisions, and studies that initially seem to have no influence can have a delayed impact when more congenial conditions arise. Despite this, there is broad consensus that the major goal of evaluation should be to influence decision-making or policy formulation through the provision of empirically-driven feedback.
Types of Evaluation
There are many different types of evaluations depending on the object being evaluated and the purpose of the evaluation. Perhaps the most important basic distinction in evaluation types is that between formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluations strengthen or improve the object being evaluated they help form it by examining the delivery of the program or technology, the quality of its implementation, and the assessment of the organizational context, personnel, procedures, inputs, and so on. Summative evaluations, in contrast, examine the effects or outcomes of some object they summarize it by describing what happens subsequent to delivery of the program or technology; assessing whether the object can be said to have caused the outcome; determining the overall impact of the causal factor beyond only the immediate target outcomes; and, estimating the relative costs associated with the object.
Formative evaluation includes several evaluation types:
- needs assessment determines who needs the program, how great the need is, and what might work to meet the need
- evaluability assessment determines whether an evaluation is feasible and how stakeholders can help shape its usefulness
- structured conceptualization helps stakeholders define the program or technology, the target population, and the possible outcomes
- implementation evaluation monitors the fidelity of the program or technology delivery
- process evaluation investigates the process of delivering the program or technology, including alternative delivery procedures
Summative evaluation can also be subdivided:
- outcome evaluations investigate whether the program or technology caused demonstrable effects on specifically defined target outcomes
- impact evaluation is broader and assesses the overall or net effects intended or unintended of the program or technology as a whole
- cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis address questions of efficiency by standardizing outcomes in terms of their dollar costs and values
- secondary analysis reexamines existing data to address new questions or use methods not previously employed
- meta-analysis integrates the outcome estimates from multiple studies to arrive at an overall or summary judgement on an evaluation question