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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
This issue of The Evaluation Exchange continues the exploration of innovative approaches to the evaluation of child and family services with the examination of participatory evaluation strategies. Interest in them is growing because their emphasis on stakeholder involvement and utilization of information correspond with the emerging needs of many programs and reform efforts. One need is for evaluation approaches that fit with and build on efforts to empower families and communities. Another follows from the trend to devolve decision-making authority and accountability down to the state and local levels with accompanying needs for greater community involvement, commitment, and use of knowledge. Finally, there is growing recognition of the need for evaluation strategies that help build learning organizations and perhaps learning communities, with the capacity to gather, analyze, and use information for continuous improvement and social problem solving.


Our purposes here are to introduce and examine the key ideas behind participatory approaches through the work of its practitioners and to indicate the wide range of fields where these approaches are being applied and tested. They include international development as well as domestic education, health and social services, and community development.

Several years ago, Jennifer Greene and I wrote about the potential fruitfulness of partnerships between family support initiatives and participatory evaluations (Weiss & Greene, 1992). Our survey of subsequent work shows that participatory evaluation is in the early stages of testing. However, as more evaluators try the approaches and write about their experiences, such as those described here, we are getting a better and more realistic sense of the strengths, limits, and demands.

In “Questions and Answers,” Upshur and Barreto-Cortez address basic questions about the roots and uses of the approach and discuss some of its advantages and disadvantages—examples of which are illustrated in the article about the Roofless Women's Action Research Mobilization (RWARM) project. RWARM illustrates the empowerment potential of the approach as well as its capacity to get a different perspective into the policy process.

Further Reading

Weiss, H., & Greene, J. (1992).An empowerment partnership for family support and education programs and evaluations. Family Science Review, 5 (1+2).

Cousins and Earl share lessons learned in testing their utilization-focused participatory evaluation approach. Their work is especially helpful in pointing out the organizational conditions necessary for utilization and the changes required in the roles and expectations for evaluation and evaluators.

Pastor and Roberts describe their collaborative research partnership with middle school students and teachers to assess the contribution of community service to academic achievement. They describe how the students benefited by becoming research partners as well as the positive changes that the results and process of self-reflection set off within the school.

Together, the articles indicate participatory approaches can be very powerful and useful for the individuals and organizations involved as well as very demanding and time-consuming. We will track and assess the new approach periodically in The Evaluation Exchange because as experience with it accumulates, there will be a better sense of when it is appropriate to use and the conditions necessary for its successful application.

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

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project