Speaking Truth to Power: TCEC at Evaluation 2018

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by Jeanette Treiber

“Speaking Truth to Power” was the theme of the 2018 American Evaluation Association (AEA) annual meeting in Cleveland, OH from October 29 to November 3. This yearly conference is a great way for evaluators to listen and learn as well as to share evaluation-related skills and ideas, and to reflect on our profession.

Evaluators also received the newly published 2018 AEA Evaluator Competencies which can soon be found on the AEA website. These competencies will be useful for all of us, but especially for those tobacco control folks that are still in the process of developing the competencies to become internal evaluators and for TCEC to make respective recommendations.

Throughout the conference many of the presentations, roundtables, and demonstrations alluded to this year’s theme. In the opening plenary session, the current AEA president Leslie Goodyear reminded evaluators of their unique role as providers of data and evidence that can have an impact on decision makers and policy. Moreover, she emphasized the need to speak the truth more loudly and to step into the lime light rather than remaining in the background. Goodyear also discussed the newly updated AEA “Guiding Principles” for evaluators that can be summarized under the headings of “Systematic Inquiry, Competence, Integrity, Respect for People, Common Good and Equity.

Michael Patton, who has been a long-time leader in the movement towards making practical use of evaluation, introduced the ideas of his new book on principles focused evaluation and gave numerous historical examples for what speaking truth to power means. He reminded the audience that for Nelson Mandela it was an interactive process, not a one-way street, and for those who may think that truth is irrefutable knowledge, he responded with Ernie House’s assertion that “Truth is the attainment of arguments soundly made.” In his typical, unorthodox fashion, Patton gave a thought provoking talk.

Apart from these rather philosophical ponderings, there was, as always, a lot of skill building opportunity, and TCEC gained new insights into instrument testing, evaluation with youth, system analysis, culturally responsive evaluation, the “causal loop” technique, and a lot more that we hope to work into our TCEC trainings to pass the learning on to you in the coming year.

TCEC is also an active participant in AEA conferences and shares its own knowledge and experiences with the evaluation community. TCEC has made contributions especially in regards to responses to reporting challenges. In past years we have presented on making reporting more user-friendly, and introducing the revised policy evaluation manual “Tell Your Story” that you are all familiar with.

This year, TCEC held a demonstration session on “Evaluating and Reporting on Projects with Multiple Interventions and Funding Streams,” using the Healthy Stores campaign as an example. It helped evaluators to think about how they can show the contribution their project has made to a larger goal when causality is hard to prove. Using the principles of contribution analysis, it emphasized the need for good logic models, evidence based theories of change and intervention activities, analyzing the fidelity to the approach, and it made suggestions for reporting language that gives credit without overstating one’s contributions. The 40 participants appreciated the usefulness of this session.

If possible, consider going to Evaluation 2019, which will be held in Minneapolis. Next year’s theme is still to be determined, but check the website for updates. It is always a great way to interact with evaluators around the nation-- and even the globe.