Evaluation5's Blog

June 24, 2011

Reading Michael Quinn Patton

Filed under: Evaluation theory, learning — evaluation5 @ 1:04 pm

By Marlen Arkesteijn, Capturing Development 24 June 2011

Since I am writing an article on development cooperation and its M&E approaches, -and naturally to keep myself updated- I read Michael Quinn Patton’s latest book (2011) ‘Developmental Evaluation. Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use’, published by the Guilford Press, New York.

To avoid any confusion: Developmental evaluation has nothing to do in particular with development cooperation. ‘Developmental’ is referring to the approach that Patton’s follows. He writes (based on a quote of Pagels) “Evaluation has explored merit and worth, processes and outcomes, formative and summative evaluation; we have a good sense of the lay of the land. The great unexplored frontier is evaluation under conditions of complexity. Developmental evaluation explores that frontier.” (pg 1)

So Developmental evaluation is an evaluation approach dealing with complexity. However, various practitioners and evaluation professionals have start using Developmental evaluation within development cooperation.

The book is a very good read, with illustrative examples and hilaric and anecdotal situations. Patton describes for example how he has come up with Developmental evaluation.  He was working for a programme, using formative and summative evaluations as his repertoire, while the team did not want to come to a fixed model (summative evaluation) that could be tested during a summative evaluation. “We want to keep developing and changing”, they stated….. “Formative evaluation! Summative evaluation! Is that all you evaluators have to offer?”, one of the team members exclaimed. ‘Frustration, even hostility, was palpable in his tone.’……. “Well,” I said, seeking inspiration in my coffee cup, “I suppose we could do, umm, we could, umm, well, we might do, you know… we could try developmental evaluation!” (pg 3)

Developmental evaluation supports innovation development to guide adaptation to emergent and dynamic realities in complex environments, so it is quite different from regular evaluation approaches that focus more on control, and finding order in the chaos. Patton mentions five complex situations developmental evaluation is particularly appropriate for:

  1. Ongoing development in adapting a program, policy, or innovation to new conditions in complex dynamic systems;
  2. Adapting effective principles to a local context as ideas and innovations are taken from elsewhere and developed in a new setting;
  3. Developing a rapid response in the face of a sudden major change, exploring real time solutions;
  4. Preformative development of potentially broad impact scalable innovation;
  5. Major system change and cross-scale development evaluation.

A very important key feature of developmental evaluation is that it aims to contribute to social change and ‘nurture developmental, emergent, innovative, and transformative processes’. It is not so much about testing and refining a model (formative) or about a judgement (summative). It has a strong action-research component. With this, he is embarking on a rather new purpose of evaluation. Ofcourse, other types of evaluation aim to contribute to social change as well, but usually in an indirect way, exploring what works and what doesn’t. Developmental evaluation goes a step further, and aims to be part of the action, facilitating interventions that may work (or not).

Another, very much related key feature is the ‘closeness’ of the evaluator to a programme. From a person that is only visiting mid-term or at the end of a programme, a developmental evaluator is ‘continously’ present. Asking questions, probing, exploring with the programme, providing feedback in ‘real time’ in rather short feedback loops.

These two features are in my opinion, exactly what may be needed when dealing with complex situations. The situations are complex, unpredictable, non–causal, non–linear, emergent and may need constant attention. Programme or project leaders (in my experience) are many times too involved in their management activities to also be able to remain reflective and ask critical questions themselves.  A developmental evaluator could provide help.

Overall, it is an inspiring and thought provoking book, and offers good guidance, without falling in the pittfall of blueprints or steps! Ofcourse it also raises questions. Especially when he is talking about system change, the fifth complex situation. Here he refers to the work of Bob Williams who uses a quite broad understanding of system as long as boundaries, perspectives and interrelationships are involved. In the end this means that almost all situations are ‘systems’ and that is what I see happening in debates.

I think (and correct me if I am wrong) the ‘system’ concept needs unraveling and  ’demystification’. What is really necessary  is to challenge the institutional settings and its related norms, values, cultures etc that reproduce current unsustainable practices.   What could help this unraveling  is to borrow from concepts and theory used in innovation science.

In my article on development cooperation and M&E appproaches, this will be one of the topics I will further explore and discuss. It is going to be an inspiring and hot summer! I hope to write more about this topic in my next blog.


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