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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Heather Weiss

I have been thinking a lot lately about evaluation in a democratic society. Recent trips to India and Africa impressed on me evaluation's potential to leverage bottom-up program change and to address issues of social justice. Meanwhile, my concerns about how some evaluations of important large-scale programs in this country lacked transparency, public input, and deliberation led me to consider an issue of The Evaluation Exchange on participatory and democratic evaluation. Finally, Active Liberty, the new book by Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, helped me recognize the value of an issue devoted to the democratic purposes of evaluation. Breyer argues for bringing the Constitution's democratic objective—of supporting democratic institutions and participation—to bear in judicial interpretation and decision making. Evaluation can play an analogous role in promoting democratic processes, institutions, and participation.

The contributors to this issue ground their articles on one or more of these principles: (a) evaluation theory and practice should reflect a society that advances democracy; (b) in an evaluation context, there should be a redistribution of power relationships accomplished by “democratizing knowledge” and acknowledging the value of different types of knowing; and (c) evaluation should create a space for communication about critical issues among stakeholder groups.

By the first principle, associated with Ernest House, democratic evaluation promotes inclusion, dialogue, and deliberation. Evaluation has typically served government and funding agencies and is linked to institutional contexts of power. Democratic evaluation seeks to correct this bias by helping ordinary people gain the knowledge and voice to address an evaluation's purpose, judge a program's quality, and make recommendations. It also deepens evaluators' obligation to strive for public deliberation of evaluation findings. In our article, Kathleen McCartney and I identify the rules of evidence and appropriate use of evaluation to reduce the control of data by powerful interests in a politicized environment.

By the second principle, evaluation emphasizes inclusion by inviting the questions, ideas, and insights of nongovernmental agencies and people who are the subject of evaluations. Inclusion has the potential to promote democracy to society at large. Communities can share their experiential knowledge to improve programs and use data to hold public officials accountable.

Different approaches to evaluation have value for the different types of knowledge they generate. Scientifically based evaluations, which place a premium on experimental designs, provide an understanding about what works in programs, while other kinds of evaluations yield information about what processes and contexts make programs work. As Tim Ross points out in his article, democratic societies support different evaluation pathways to the same end: what works best for the public good.

By the third principle, evaluation encourages public conversation among stakeholders. Evaluation can learn from advances in digital society, in which people can easily access information and form networks to influence policy agendas. Organizations that make their evaluations available online, share tools with disadvantaged communities, and encourage community deliberation by experimenting with new formats such as photovoice are enhancing the communicative potential of evaluation.

Democratic evaluation still remains in the periphery of the repertoire of standard evaluation practices. I welcome your ideas on how to mainstream it in our profession.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project