5 tips for delivering outcomes-focused evaluation

Evaluations should be treated like 'change projects', says Mike Williams

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Social work practitioners understand the need for outcomes-focused evaluations. But the welcome they give them isn't always warm.

Having your work scrutinised can be unnerving. For practitioners, it can feel like an intrusion into their relationship with a client.

Asking practitioners to deliver new measures can feel like a threat to their ability to deliver the best outcomes.

As a result, practitioners have been known to drag their heels when it comes to implementing outcomes-focused evaluation. Below are some tips to make the process easier.


Tip 1: See evaluation as a change project

When practitioners show resistance, everyone involved asks: "how are we going to get this evaluation moving?" It's useful to see outcomes-focused evaluation as a change project.

Evaluation often involves creating an opportunity for practitioners to critically reflect on their working methods and approaches. It requires:

  • a change in focus
  • a change in the questions that are asked
  • a change in ways of working.

Tip 2: Embrace the power of change

As agents of change, evaluators and evaluative-minded practitioners should read the book "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard", by Dan and Chip Heath.

The Heath brothers compare organisations and the people in them to an elephant with a rider. The rider is the intellect, the thing that controls the direction of travel. The elephant is the emotion, the thing that provides momentum. Successful change, and successful evaluation, requires engagement of the elephant as well as the rider.

Engaging the rider is what evaluators do best. They're good at providing instructions, training staff in how to use measures and creating flow charts to help them work out an order of activities. But evaluators need to remember that we all have a fairly limited capacity for adopting new habits.

Enthusiastic evaluators who load practitioners with standardised measures can easily reduce the capacity for change. It's better to start an evaluation with 1 measure at 2 time points, and introduce more measures later.

Tip 3: Take a new approach to training

The same approach should also influence evaluation training.

Rather than the typical one-off lecture, training needs to involve an element of personal coaching where the evaluator helps the practitioner across each case, correcting faults and praising success.

Tip 4: Inspire practitioners

It's not uncommon to meet a bewildered evaluator who, after delivering training on how to administer a set of standardised measures, finds out few have been implemented.

The Heath brothers point out that the series of steps people make when they change is not "analyse-think-change". It's "see-feel-change".

But how many evaluators attempt to inspire practitioners' feelings as well as inform them? And how do you inspire practitioners anyway?

Praise practitioners offering valuable insight

Evaluators can act as conduits. They can pass knowledge about outcomes-focused practice between staff, referencing those who've provided interesting insights so they feel proud of their contribution. This makes the evaluation feel more than just a formal study - it's a practitioner movement for change, designed to develop shared understanding and expertise.

Show an interest in practitioners' work

People don't just buy into an evaluation. They buy into the people doing the evaluation. And if an evaluator wants a practitioner to believe in them, they need to show a keen interest in the practitioner's work.

Giving practitioners the opportunity to influence evaluation design will increase respect for the evaluator and cooperation.

And when practitioners do well in evaluation, evaluators should give them the opportunity to lead and train others. An enthusiastic practitioner will always be more motivating than a capable evaluator.

Tip 5: Make the path easier to travel

If evaluators can drive change and inspire practitioners they're likely to have some degree of success. But the Heath brothers point out that success will be multiplied if evaluators can make the path easier to travel.

Evaluators often instruct a team to deliver several measures over several time points and leave the task of when and how to deliver them to the team. But practitioners can become quickly exhausted by having to work out dates for each case. Evaluators can help by creating systems that send reminders to practitioners and warnings when they go over time.

Evaluators should recognise that a practitioner's case work doesn't always fit the evaluation plan. In this situation, practitioners can freeze and do nothing. Evaluators should create an environment where practitioners are motivated and encouraged to work out the steps needed to progress the evaluation.

It also helps to know that in any evaluation there are usually 1 or 2 practitioners at the frontline, keen to get going. They are the pathfinders who'll come up with creative ways to overcome unexpected barriers.

If evaluators can identify the pathfinders, they can make the path easier for everyone else.

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