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Building Evaluation Capacity in Government and Nonprofit Agencies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Saunji D. Fyffe
February 14, 2019

More and more, government and nonprofit agencies are seeking to strengthen the quality of their programs and improve outcomes. That being said, agencies are increasingly considering program evaluation to identify the extent that social programs succeed in achieving positive outcomes. They are also turning to program evaluation to answer questions about how to improve programs and services.

Quality program evaluations that follow a systematic approach usually will include both process and outcome evaluation. Conducting process evaluation in combination with outcome evaluation offers a more complete picture by linking program activities and observed outcomes with a higher degree of certainty. Determining whether a social program actually works or is achieving its expected outcomes is difficult without having evidence that a program has been implemented as intended.

Although program evaluation can be an especially important tool in understanding and assessing complex government and nonprofit initiatives, agency staff often have concerns and may lack the necessary capacity to conduct evaluations or use evaluation information effectively. For example, agency staff tend to express concerns that program evaluation is too difficult and burdensome, is an added responsibility and redirects important resources away from their ability to deliver programs and services. Although these may be valid points, building an agency’s evaluation capacity can help agencies alleviate evaluation concerns. It can also ultimately encourage agency staff to use evaluation for making operational and programmatic decisions.

Building evaluation capacity involves strengthening an agency’s ability to conduct and use evaluation to improve program results. This may entail strengthening certain attributes such as staff skills and knowledge, or the systems and resources needed to support the evaluation processes. An immediate way to build evaluation capacity is for agencies to create an internal staff position dedicated to program evaluation. However, government and nonprofit agencies seldom have the resources to hire new staff or must go through long bureaucratic processes to get a new position approved. Fortunately, building evaluation capacity can take many forms and involve a range of strategies, such as:

  • Contracting with an external evaluation consultant. Government and nonprofit agencies can hire consultants to handle the full program evaluation function or various parts at different stages in the process. Consultants may serve as advisors that provide input on program evaluation design and practices or even coach, train or guide staff with limited program evaluation knowledge and skills.
  • Participating in external evaluations. Government and nonprofit agencies that lack expertise can participate in external evaluations. This provides an opportunity for agencies to learn more about evaluation practices, which could potentially lead to increasing their use of process evaluation
  • Partnering on joint evaluations. Government and nonprofit agencies working to address the same issues can partner with each other to conduct joint evaluations. A partner approach to evaluation can strengthen decisionmaking and generate more learning about whether comprehensive interventions are working as intended and why. Plus, a cooperative and collaborative joint evaluation can improve evaluation quality by generating a more complete picture of a program’s strengths and weaknesses. Partnerships can help verify whether a program is operating and implemented as planned.

While there are many evaluation capacity-building strategies  government and nonprofit agencies can pursue, agencies must first have an organizational culture that values learning in order for these strategies succeed. Government and nonprofit agencies looking to successfully build evaluative capacity should be cognizant of internal cultural implications.

Agencies have unique cultural issues and factors that may contribute to or impact the ability to build evaluation capacity. In other words, an agency’s culture (e.g., its norms, values, assumptions and behaviors) can encourage the use of evaluation or facilitate building the capacity to do so. For instance, agencies that have leaders and staff who not only value learning, but more importantly, practice and incorporate learning into the culture and throughout agency operations may be less likely to have concerns. They may be more open to learning what is or is not working from program evaluation.

It is important to note that different organizational cultures also can influence how quickly government and nonprofit agencies strengthen their evaluation capacity. Therefore, agencies should customize evaluation capacity-building strategies  to match the organizational culture, as well as the needs of those staff who will be involved with and use the program evaluation.

Although government and nonprofit agencies may recognize the benefits and efficacy of program evaluation, limited evaluation capacity is a barrier for implementing quality program evaluation efforts. If government and nonprofit agencies truly want to identify the extent to which social programs are successful in achieving positive outcomes, and answer questions about how programs and services can be improved, then agencies will need to pursue practical and realistic strategies to strengthen their evaluation capacity.

Author: Saunji D. Fyffe, Ph.D., is a consultant specializing in program monitoring and evaluation. This article is based on her experience working with government and nonprofit agencies to build capacity and implement performance measurement and management. For additional information, email [email protected].

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