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Empowerment evaluation is an innovative approach to evaluation. It has been adopted in higher education, government, inner-city public education, nonprofit corporations, and foundations throughout the United States and abroad. Although it can be applied to individuals, organizations, communities, and societies or cultures, the focus is usually on programs. A wide range of programs use empowerment evaluation, including substance abuse prevention, adolescent pregnancy prevention, doctoral programs, and accelerated schools.

Empowerment evaluation is the use of evaluation concepts, techniques, and findings to foster improvement and self-determination. It employs both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Empowerment evaluation has an unambiguous value orientation. It is designed to help people help themselves and improve their programs using a form of self-evaluation and reflection. Program participants—including clients—conduct their own evaluations; an outside evaluator often serves as a coach or additional facilitator depending on internal program capabilities.

Empowerment evaluation is necessarily a collaborative group activity, not an individual pursuit. An evaluator does not and cannot empower anyone; people empower themselves, often with assistance and coaching. This process is fundamentally democratic in the sense that it invites (if not demands) participation, examining issues of concern to the entire community in an open forum.

As a result, the context changes: the assessment of a program's value and worth is not the endpoint of the evaluation—as it often is in traditional evaluation—but is part of an ongoing process of program improvement. This new context acknowledges a simple but often overlooked truth: that merit and worth are not static values. By internalizing and institutionalizing self-evaluation processes and practices, a dynamic and responsive approach to evaluation can be developed to accommodate these shifts.

There are several pragmatic steps involved in helping others learn to evaluate their own programs: (1) taking stock or determining where the program stands, including strengths and weaknesses; (2) focusing on establishing goals (determining where you want to go in the future with an explicit emphasis on program improvement); (3) developing strategies and helping participants determine their own strategies to accomplish program goals and objectives; and (4) helping program participants determine the type of evidence required to document progress credibly toward their goals.

Further Reading

Fetterman, D. M. (in press). Empowerment evaluation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fetterman, D. M. (1994). Empowerment evaluation. Presidential Address. Evaluation Practice, 15(1), 1–15.

Fetterman, D. M. (1994). Steps of empowerment evaluation: From California to Cape Town. Evaluation and Program Planning, 17(3), 305–313.

Fetterman, D. M., Kaftarian, S., and Wandersman, A. (1995). Empowerment evaluation: Knowledge and tools for self-assessment and accountability. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation. (1994). The program evaluation standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Many elements must be in place for empowerment evaluation to be effective and credible. Participants must have the latitude to experiment, taking both risks and responsibility for their actions. An environment conducive to sharing successes and failures is also essential.

An outside evaluator who is charged with monitoring the process can help keep the effort credible, useful, and on track, providing additional rigor, reality checks, and quality controls throughout the evaluation. The evaluator is a coequal in this endeavor, not a superior and not a servant; as a critical friend, the evaluator can question shared biases or “group think.”

As is the case in traditional evaluation, everyone is accountable in one fashion or another and thus has an interest or agenda to protect. A school district may have a five-year plan designed by the superintendent, or a graduate school may have to satisfy requirements of an accreditation association. Empowerment evaluations, like all other evaluations, exist within a context. However, the range of intermediate objectives linking what most people do in their daily routine and macro goals is almost infinite. People often feel empowered and self-determined when they can select meaningful intermediate objectives that are linked to larger, global goals.

Despite its focus on self-determination and collaboration, empowerment evaluation and traditional external evaluation are not mutually exclusive; to the contrary, they enhance each other. In fact, the empowerment evaluation process produces a rich data source that enables a more complete external examination. Greater coordination between the needs of the internal and external forms of evaluation can provide a reality check concerning external needs and expectations for insiders, and a rich data base for external evaluators.

Finally, it is hoped that empowerment evaluation will benefit from the artful shaping of our combined contributions rather than follow any single approach or strategy.

David Fetterman
Stanford University and the California Institute of Integral Studies

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