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Category: Complex Evaluation

Rethinking Evaluation Competencies in 2021: Questions to Focus Our Efforts

Competencies can be defined as “clusters of related knowledge, skills, abilities, and other requirements necessary for successful job performance.”  This definition taken from the Unites Nations Evaluation group suggests a concept of competency that is defined at the individual level. One challenge as we look ahead is to also explore how organizational and system-level supports can help enhance evaluation “job performance.”

The Development Monitoring Evaluation Office (DMEO) of Niti Aayog in India had organized a panel titled, “Systemic Essentials for Strengthening Government Evaluation Capacities” in June 2021. In this blog I reflect on some questions on evaluation competencies that can help sharpen our focus.

Learning from other discussions on evaluation competencies

A good starting point is to explore some examples of evaluation competencies. The UN Evaluation Group in 2016, for example, in its focus in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, Gender, Equality and Human Rights, listed the following five domains of evaluation competencies:

  • Professional Foundation – these include ethics and integrity, evaluation norms and standards
  • Technical Evaluation Skills – these include evaluation approaches, methods and data analysis
  • Management Skills – work planning, coordination, and supervision
  • Interpersonal skills – these include communication, facilitation, and negotiation
  • Promoting a Culture of Learning for Evaluation – these include focus on utilization and integration of evaluation into policy and programs

The American Evaluation Association in 2018 focus is on the following five domains:

  • Professional Practice
  • Methodology
  • Context
  • Planning and Management
  • Interpersonal

Any policy maker or evaluator interested in what evaluation capacities matter is also advised to explore other evaluation competencies including the Aotearoa New Zealand Evaluation Association competency document from a decade ago (2011). One focus here is on paying attention to cultural values in shaping competencies: “… our intention is to ensure that cultural competency is not treated like a peripheral or marginalised aspect, rather a central component of the development of our framework of evaluation competencies and practice standards.” They go on to add: “Cultural competency is central to the validity of evaluative conclusions as well as the appropriateness of the evaluation practice.”

Similarly, the article by Jean King and co-authors from 2001, titled, “Toward a Taxonomy of Essential Evaluation Competencies” is also a must-read for anyone interested in the challenge of defining evaluation competencies. Jean is a friend, and we continue to collaborate and communicate. I know what continues to engage her is: How can systems and organizations sustain evaluation capacities over time? The big challenge as I see it is not about competencies at the individual level, but what it would take to ensure that the capacities of the broader ecosystem and organizations are sustainable over time.

Questions to precipitate action

All of the above serves as a backdrop of what I think are the essential questions that the field of evaluation and organizations like the DMEO will need to address:

The Opportunity

1) Focusing on Sustainable-Capacities Systems and Organizations: What programs of work can help build evaluation capacities in the broader ecosystem? How can it help build capacities at the organizational level in a way that capacities are sustained even if key individuals leave organizations? A good starting point will be to recognize we don’t have good answers to these questions.

2) Embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The SDGs provide a remarkable opportunity for the entire field of evaluation to prove its salience and utility. What kinds of evaluation skills can help practitioners promote an understanding of system dynamics, coherence across interventions, focus on sustainable impacts and “no one left behind” to help contribute to enhancing evaluation’s contributions to achieving the SDGs? The relevance of each of these concepts were discussed in a remarkable set of webinars hosted by the Evaluation Centre for Complex Health Interventions in Toronto.

3) Competencies for Evaluators in the Public Sector – The enormous opportunity that the dialogue led by DMEO presents is to help raise questions around what specific competencies are needed for evaluators working within governments. How can a program of work on building evaluation capacities help an evaluator working within the Central or State government do their jobs better?

Some Contemporary Challenges

4) Focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — Much of our dialogue around evaluation capacities and capabilities are occurring at a time when we are facing deep discussions and divides around inequities, hierarchies and privilege: How can evaluators create greater voice and inclusiveness in understanding the impacts of programs and policies? I do think that as a field we need to more clearly understand evaluation’s role in addressing inequities and promoting inclusion.

5) Understanding the Architecture of Complex Programs and Policies — My view is that most evaluators have a poor understanding of representing the complexities of social programs and policies.  Our tools to understand the architectures of complex programs and policies are quite limited. How do we promote understanding of theories of change of complex interventions? How do we build competencies in understanding the program mechanisms/processes that make a difference to impacts? How do we more clearly represent and understand contexts and its vital role in the success of policies and programs?

6) Enhancing Interpersonal Skills:  I find evaluation as a profession both in the North and the South still focused primarily on the technical. I am unsure that we have cracked how to build interpersonal skills. How does one build a program of work that enhances the interpersonal skills of evaluators?

7) Towards Complexity-Informed M&E: Models of Continuous Improvement – While much of our preoccupation has been on ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work,’ I’m unconvinced that we have paid as much attention to how systems and organizations improve in an ongoing manner. Most interventions, and organizations are ‘complex systems thrust amidst complex systems.’ What are programs of evaluation capacity building that can help inform more complexity-informed monitoring and evaluation?

8) Skill Sets to Synthesize Evidence and Build an Ecology of Evidence – Another area that I find missing is an ability to synthesize very disparate sources of information towards creating a policy environment in which an ecology of evidence is used to make decisions. Despite all of our focus on mixed methods approaches, I’m not convinced that we have trained individuals to synthesize evidence that can help build an ecology of evidence. 

Looking ahead

I do want to end by reiterating that this is an exciting time to raise questions around evaluation competencies. With the focus on SDGs and recent debates on what evaluation criteria matter, this rich dialogue around competencies can lead towards a more vibrant field of evaluation both in India and globally.  It is perhaps fitting to end with remembering one of the founders of the field of modern-day evaluation, Donald Campbell. His vision of evaluation was that of a “mutually monitoring, disputatious community.” It’s important to recognize that our work can lead towards evolution of knowledge and  systems and mostly importantly improved lives and a more sustainable world.  There will be differences and disputes as we argue about different views of progress. How do we promote an ecosystem of evaluators that have both confidence and grace while disputing diverse views of what constitutes progress?

Some Reflections on Learning from the Pandemic: Reimagining the role of Community Organizations During the Pandemic

Diane Walter, Executive Director, Margaret's Housing and Community Support Services

Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services is a multi-service agency that provides a continuum of housing options and wrap-around supports to women living with mental illness and substance use, as well as community-based support services including several drop-in centres and respite services in Toronto for individuals experiencing intersectional issues tied to mental health challenges and homelessness

The Evaluation Centre posed a number of questions for me to reflect on. I share some brief reflections below. My hope is that such reflections from both me and others on my team and partners at the Evaluation Centre lead to systemic learning and system-level solutions in the future.

At such a difficult time, what has kept you going?

What keeps me going more than anything else since the pandemic is the knowledge that some of the folks that we’re serving really have no options. Recognizing that we can make a difference in someone’s life by making sure that a staff member delivers some groceries, or there’s a wellness check-in, for example, keeps me going.  Also, recognizing that although I’m a minor cog, we might still be helpful during this pandemic in somebody’s life, this gives me energy even when I don’t have energy.

What have you learned during the pandemic?

The generosity of my staff, some partners and Torontonians
The generosity of Torontonians with donations of cash and PPE and both my team and our partners who have worked closely and well inspires me. What I have discovered is there are many staff who weren’t stars necessarily before the pandemic; they did their jobs adequately and met their deliverables; but during the pandemic they have shone and seem to thrive in the chaos – you can call them at any time, and they just step up and deliver in spades. 

Leadership stepping up to the plate
Some leaders in Toronto and Ontario have pleasantly surprised me. I’ve seen some leaders during the pandemic lead with compassion and empathy. I have also grown to respect some leaders’ ability to communicate to the public in a near daily basis that they have the backs of Ontarians, whatever the challenges are.  

This pandemic spotlights the need for housing as a solution
We can only hope that this pandemic is galvanizing all three levels of government in the need for housing.  I hope the government can do an accounting to see if the pandemic has cost them more than if they had addressed the homeless situation 4-5 years ago. For example, the City has opened up multiple hotel programs — rented hotel rooms to put homeless people who have tested positive or are waiting on results and those from encampments. If they had funneled those funds into building the real bricks and mortar of housing, I think things would have been significantly different. Had housing been thought about in a more deliberate solution-based fashion, this pandemic would not have been so costly.

The Importance of Prevention: Reimagining health care
I think most health care is delivered in the community, but hospitals are the recipients of the bulk of our healthcare dollars. If we were to re-imagine what a healthcare system is — not an acute care system or a sickness system, but a healthcare system — where more people in the community are trained to do simple tasks so that folks would not end up in the hospital system, given the fact that when people end up in the hospital it’s often because all the prevention and all the incremental interventions did not occur to prevent them from ending up in an expensive hospital bed, They could have been treated in the community had there been adequate prevention and adequate interventions, even something simple before prevention.

What recommendations do you have in response to this pandemic?

We have to get ready for the next wave. Historically pandemics often have a second wave. Some questions we as a system need to answer: Is it going to be worse than the first one? Is it going to be more decimating? We don’t know. But for us, we certainly have learned some things that we’re preparing ourselves should there be a second wave. For example, we’re making sure that our inventory of PPEs will take us into and perhaps beyond the second wave; some of the protocols around IPAC (Infection Prevention and Control) we are now making sure they’re ramped up, and we’re aggressively following those infection IPAC standards.

There are learnings around how a pandemic like COVID-19 could so comprehensively affect how we operate. For example, within the drop-in respite setting, we were shifting from using Styrofoam to reusable utensils because we wanted to reduce our footprint. We were really gung ho about going Green, but now that is not on the agenda for awhile; it’s totally off the table. We’re back to Styrofoam because clients are more likely to mistakenly pick up and use a reusable utensil or coffee cup that another client has used rather than one that gets thrown out. We’re looking into whether we can use other materials, but the other materials are so expensive.

We can learn some things from this pandemic that are actually positive. In terms of guidelines, we are adhering to those around PPE and making sure staff are spaced — it will affect some of the ways we work in terms of front-facing, client-facing service delivery. But we are seeing the value of virtual interaction – however, we haven’t gotten to that place where we really take a deep dive and assess it. These are things that are just coming up, and where we are thinking, “That we can amend. This we can modify.” For example, we can integrate the virtual piece into our work seeing clients one-on-one. The nurse that we use and the psychiatrist have realized that some people prefer the virtual interaction with the psychiatrist than the one-on-one

The need for learning and developing system-level solutions
My view is that what we desperately need is to learn from the experiences of community organizations providing care during this time of the pandemic. Evaluation teams like the Evaluation Centre have a role in precipitating dialogues that can lead to co-constructed systemic solutions across multiple levels of government.  The partners of organizations serving the homeless need to become learning organizations that better understand the importance of coordinated systemic solutions in addressing problems of chronic homelessness.  It is simply not sufficient to say, “we are all in this together.”  We need to move beyond rhetoric –what is needed is a coordinated system in which all partners feel valued and supported.

Towards an Ecology of Care during the Pandemic: Questions to help Frame System-Level Responses for Chronic Homelessness

Staff of the Evaluation Centre in Collaboration with Our Partners at Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services and other Community Organizations

As part of an evaluation that the Evaluation Centre is conducting with Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services, and through speaking to other providers of care in the community sector serving marginalized individuals, a number of questions has surfaced during this pandemic that can help with improving systems to create solutioning for individuals who face multiple disadvantages at the intersection of housing and mental health. The Evaluation Centre is presently working on a full-fledged report that discusses the implications of these questions for both understanding problems and generating solutions.

Some of these questions will need to be addressed by conducting summative evaluation approaches in the near future. However, most of these questions will require developmental evaluation approaches that need to be co-constructed between the organizations working to provide an ecology of care for individuals who face co-occurring conditions of homelessness, mental illness, and other issues such as substance use, gender identity discrimination, racial discrimination, and disabilities.

  1. Understanding syndemic processes:  An important issue that surfaced in our dialogues with multiple community stakeholders was the conceptual need to better understand mutually reinforcing vicious cycles that might connect chronic homelessness to poor health. The pandemic might further serve to exacerbate these connections by both reducing capacities of community organizations as well as by worsening health conditions for marginalized individuals. How will an understanding of the syndemic processes of chronic homelessness inform better planning for the ongoing and future pandemics?
  2. Learning from successful drop-in/respite sites: Not all Drop-in/Respite sites have seen problems during the pandemic. Some have had outbreaks; others have had no cases. Can a comparative analysis of such facilities help us better understand factors associated with successful responses to the pandemic?
  3. More deeply understanding the role of community organizations  in preventing and responding to the pandemic:  In our multiple dialogues what has clearly surfaced is the great need to better value the role of community organizations in an ecology of care in addressing the problems of chronic homelessness and persistent mental health challenges. What role does research and evaluation play in creating better awareness of the value of community organizations in such an ecology of care?   
  4. Equity in distribution of PPE. A related set of basics questions that emerged from multiple dialogues with community organizations has included a focus on equity in distribution of PPE and testing kits: How can there be a clearer prioritization of the importance of community organizations in responding to the pandemic? What are more equitable ways of distributing testing kits, PPE, etc.?
  5. Managing fatigue:  A number of organizations working on homelessness are  already overstretched, under-funded, and even during normal times the staff are potentially over-worked and stressed. Combined with the fear and the potential chaotic disruption caused by the pandemic, important questions for both systems and organization leaders working on chronic homelessness include: How does one manage fatigue/stress among frontline staff addressing homelessness given the long hours and extreme stress that they are facing during the pandemic? Going forward how does one build surplus capacity in community organizations given the potential organizational disruptions caused by the pandemic?
  6. Leveraging political and social opportunities to find solutions to chronic homelessness:  Stakeholders also noted that the pandemic also has created a political climate in which key actors who perhaps may not have been cognitively and politically sensitive to recognizing the need for multi-sector approaches to chronic homelessness are becoming more understanding and supportive of the interconnections between social and economic factors that drive chronic homelessness. Stakeholders noted that such favourable changes in a recognition of the multilevel complex drivers of chronic homelessness can be seen in the three levels of government. Can more be done to leverage such changes in political climate to create policy and practice solutions that are aligned across the three levels of government?
  7. Generating client-sensitive solutions:  Another point that surfaced in our multiple dialogues was the need to respond to the pandemic in ways that recognizes the lived realities of clients. For example, providing hotel rooms to isolate individuals who have tested positive or are awaiting test results might not work for some individuals whose mental health may de-compensate in such an environment. How do we think more systemically about solutions that are more client-sensitive and especially acknowledge challenges of anxiety and depression among some marginalized populations?
  8. Having better established communication protocols:  A point raised by multiple community stakeholders in the initial stages of the pandemic was the need to have clearer protocols/guidelines when faced with the disruptions caused by the pandemic. The lack of clear protocols/guidelines was deeply problematic for at least a few clients. Some of the issues that were raised in terms of a lack of communication included: lack of clarity on how long testing would take, lack of clarity of where individuals needed to be housed or stop-gap solutions that respected client contexts and client choices. What are processes going forward to develop better communication protocols between the hospitals/public health sector and the community sector?
  9. Creating systems of coordinating and supporting community care:  Another point that surfaced in multiple discussions was the experience of some community support and housing organizations that felt very much alone as they responded to the pandemic. Some of the issues that surfaced pointed to a lack of system coordination including: the need for more thoughtful systems of alerts, the need for data sharing, and the need for clearer protocols and guidelines mentioned earlier. Some of the stakeholders we spoke to did not feel supported in their efforts to thwart the pandemic or felt that there was not a system of care to support them. How does one create a more caring, coordinated system of care in which organizations don’t feel alone in responding to a pandemic?
  10. Learning solutions from the pandemic:  Some stakeholders we spoke to also spoke about some of the lessons that they have learned about the power of virtual interaction for some clients. For example, some clients have accessed more time with their psychiatrist virtually and have preferred the online interactions to their previous face-to-face interactions. Going forward, are there hybrid models in which face-to-face solutions can be combined with online solutions for some clients?

We believe that addressing the above points both through individual evaluations of community care organizations’ experiences and through generating solutions systemically perhaps through a systems-focused developmental evaluation process might be needed. It’s important we do not treat the issues raised above as just realities affecting one organization; in our work evaluating multiple community interventions during the pandemic and dialogue through the webinars that the Evaluation Centre have organized, we hear very similar concerns being raised by community organizations in countries like Chile, the UK, and India. Any solutions that we arrive at within Ontario will in all likelihood have relevance in other settings.  

Adapting a Dance Intervention in the Time of COVID-19

Dancing With Parkinson’s (DWP) is a Toronto-based not-for-profit that has been designing and delivering specialized dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) since 2008.  It is a program that is based on providing in-person dance classes.  Until recently, it was offering 15 weekly dance classes throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  But on March 12, 2020 DWP had to suspend all of its dance classes due to COVID-19.    

As the Founder and Executive Director of DWP, I was devastated.  My mind was actually quite paralyzed for the first week or so after closing our doors.  To be honest, I thought this meant the end of DWP as an organization.  Part of this was based on my assumptions about the program; I truly believed that the program could only be effective if it was delivered in person.  Key ingredients in our model, such as touch, for example, simply could not be implemented if we were unable to meet with participants face to face.  The other part was practical.  DWP has very limited operating costs and relies heavily on its annual dance-a-thon fundraiser held every Spring as well as regular class fees.  So, I really thought the pandemic signaled the end of DWP.     

Once the shock had subsided a bit, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what to do.  But I knew one thing: I didn’t want to give up on the core values and mission that had driven me to create DWP in the first place – a belief that bringing seniors out of isolation and creating a safe, welcoming space for connection through dance could make a difference in their lives.  I also knew that the pandemic and the social distancing measures put in place to stop it could leave seniors even more isolated than ever.  I wanted to find a way, really quickly, to keep our seniors connected.

This line of thinking led me to pilot short online dance classes for our existing DWP community.  The online classes were so well-received that I quickly began offering 20-minute online dance classes seven days per week.  Class participants started asking me if they could share the class link with their sister, brother, and friends.  My friends asked if their mom, dad, aunt, or uncle could join.  I soon realized that all seniors, not just those with PD, could benefit from these classes, especially at a time when so many people were feeling the physical and emotional strains of social isolation.  There are now more than 400 seniors on our online class roster and these participants login from all across the country.  We even have some participants from outside of Canada.  The participant numbers are growing daily.

Challenges of Adapting to Online Delivery

Have there been challenges?  Sure.  For one, I am not very technologically inclined.  So, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me.  I am still working on improving the quality of the classes in terms of sound and picture, for example.  There have also been a handful of seniors that needed some support in setting up and using the online platform, so we walked them through this offline.  But, for the most part, participants have accessed the online classes fairly seamlessly.  In fact, some seniors have even shared tips with me about specific features of the technology!  I think the biggest challenge and the worst part of adapting the program to an online delivery method is that some seniors don’t have access to the technology needed to join the classes – and these are the people who most likely would benefit the most.  This is something that needs to be addressed.

Some Surprises and Learnings

Innovating the program in this way has been surprising on a number of fronts.  First of all, I am surprised that seniors are still able to make meaningful connections with each other and feel energized, uplifted, physically conditioned, hopeful, and so on.  Many of the same outcomes we tried to bring about before in our in-person classes are happening now through the online technology.  Do I think touch is still important?  Yes.  And I will be super excited to give everyone a big hug when we are allowed to resume our in-person dance classes.  But maybe it is not the primary way of connecting people; there are other ways.

Second, I have received initial feedback that some seniors find the online classes meet their needs better than the in-person classes.  This goes beyond the convenience aspect of the online method, which is not terribly surprising (for example, it makes sense that seniors with PD would find it easier to attend a class in their own homes rather than organizing transportation and spending the time and effort to make it to a geographically distant class location).  For the online classes, I spotlight video myself, which makes me really big on the screen.  This may make the class feel more intimate or one-on-one in nature.  Some participants say that this helps them focus better on the class exercises, as they are not distracted by the movements of others in their peripheral vision.  That participants could actually benefit more from the online version of the class came as a big surprise to me.  This is a pretty deep learning.

Finally, I am shocked by how much this is touching me – how emotionally connected I feel to all of the dance participants and the new friends I am making.  I am meeting new seniors all the time and quickly feeling very attached to them.  There is something very raw and human about this whole experience.  This fits with DWP’s philosophy – come as who you are in the present moment. We accept you and you accept us. People are being so vulnerable and open and this is a very scary and uncertain time.  But DWP is still able to create this safe and joyful place to go.  I am excited about the fact that DWP has a life beyond what the plan was.  I am excited to be innovating again and making some new plans that might end up impacting more people than we ever thought we could.