Developing guiding principles and standards in the field of evaluation – lessons learned

This is a guest blog post by professor Peter Dahler-Larsen. The reflections below are a follow-up of his keynote at the STI conference in Leiden (3-5 September 2014) and the special session at STI on the development of quality standards for science & technology indicators. Dahler-Larsen holds a chair at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. He is former president of the European Evaluation Society and author of The Evaluation Society (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Lessons learned about the development of guiding principles and standards in the field of evaluation – A personal reflection

Professor Peter Dahler-Larsen, 5 October 2014

Guidelines are symbolic, not regulatory

The limited institutional status of guiding principles and standards should be understood as a starting point for the debate. In the initial phases of development of such standards and guidelines, people often have very strong views. But only the state can enforce laws. To the extent that guidelines and standards merely express some official views of a professional association who has no institutional power to enforce them, standards and guidelines will have limited direct consequences for practitioners. The discussion becomes clearer once it is recognized that standards and guidelines thus primarily have a symbolic and communicative function, not a regulatory one. Practitioners will continue to be free to do whatever kind of practice they like, also after guidelines have been adopted.

Design a process of debate and involvement

All members of a professional association should have a possibility to comment on a draft version of guidelines/standards. An important component in the adoption of guidelines/standards is the design of a proper organizational process that involves the composition of a draft by a select group of recognized experts, an open debate among members, and an official procedure for the adoption of standards/guidelines as organizational policy.

Acknowledge the difference between minimum and maximum standards

Minimal standards must be complied with in all situations. Maximum standards are ideal principles worth striving for, although they will not be accomplished in any particular situation. It often turns out that there will be many maximum principles in a set of guidelines, although that is not what most people believe is “standards.” For that reason I personally prefer the term guidelines or guiding principles rather that “standards.”

Think carefully about guidelines and methodological pluralism

Advocates of a particular method often think that methodological rules connected to their own method defines quality as such in the whole field. For that reason, they are likely to insert their own methodological rules into the set of guidelines. As a consequence, guidelines can be used politically to promote one set of methods or one particular paradigm rather than another. Great care should be exercised in the formulation of guidelines to make sure that pluralism remains protected. For example, in evaluation the rule is that if you subscribe to a particular method, you should have high competence in the chosen method. But that goes for all methods.

Get beyond the “but that´s obvious” argument

Some argue that it is futile to formulate a set of guidelines because at that level of generality, it is only possible to state some very broad and obvious principles with which every sensible person must agree. The argument sounds plausible when you hear it, but my experience suggests otherwise for a number of reasons. First, some people have just not thought about a very bad practice (for example, doing evaluation without written Terms of Reference). Once you see, that someone has formulated a guideline against this, you are likely to start paying attention to the problem. Just because a principle is obvious to some, does not mean that it is obvious to all. Second, although there may be general agreement about a principle (such as “do no unnecessary harm” or “take general social welfare into account”), there can be strong disagreement about the interpretations and implications of the principle in practice.  Third, a good set of guiding principles will often comprise at least two principles that are somewhat in tension with each other, for example the principle of being quick and useful versus the principle of being scientifically rigorous. To sort out exactly which kind of tension between these two principles one can live with in a concrete case turns out to be a matter of complicated professional judgment. So, get beyond the “that´s obvious” argument.

Recognize the fruitful uses of guidelines

Among the most important uses of guidelines in evaluation are:

– In application situations, good evaluators can explain their practice with reference to broader principles

– In conferences, guidelines can stimulate insightful professional discussions about how to handle complicated cases

– Books and journals can make use of guidelines as inspiration for the development of an ethical awareness among practitioners. For example, google Michael Morris´ work in the field of evaluation.

– There is great use of guidelines in teaching and in other forms of socialization of evaluators.

Respect the multiplicity of organizations

If, say, the European Evaluation Society wants to adopt a set of guidelines, it should be respected that, say, the German and the Swiss association already have their own guidelines. Furthermore, some professional associations (say, psychologists) also have guidelines. A professional association should take such overlaps seriously and find ways to exchange views and experiences with guidelines across national and organizational borders.

Professionals are not alone, but relations can be described in guidelines, too

It is often debated that one of the major problems in bad evaluation practice is the behavior of commissioners. Some therefore think that guidelines describing good evaluation practice are in vain until the behavior of commissioners (and perhaps other users of evaluation) are included in the guidelines, too. However, there is no particular reason why the guidelines cannot describe a good relation and a good interaction between commissioners and evaluators. Remember, guidelines have no regulatory power. They express merely the official norms of the professional association. Evaluators are allowed to express what they think a good commissioner should do or not do. In fact, explicit guidelines can help clarify mutual and reciprocal role expectations.

Allow for regular reflection, evaluation and revision of guidelines

At regular intervals, guidelines should be debated, evaluated and revised. The AEA guidelines, for example, have been revised and now reflect values regarding culturally competent evaluation that was not in earlier versions. Guidelines are organic and reflect a particular socio-historical situation.

Sources:

Michael Morris (2008). Evaluation Ethics for Best Practice. Guilford Press.

American Evaluation Association Guiding principles

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