Reflections for a New Era in Evaluation

By John S. Bare (Guest Blogger)

About John Bare: A former journalist, John holds a Ph.D. in mass communication research from the University of North Carolina and has 14 years of experience leading evaluation, planning and program design for foundations. John’s most recent article on evaluation, Philanthropy, Evaluation, Accountability and Social Change, appeared in The Foundation Review.

The finance crisis in general and the housing collapse, in particular, are among the great evaluation challenges of our time.

It’s easy enough to imagine how to evaluate a local literacy program. And as Hallie Preskill explained so well in her recent blog, Michael Patton’s Developmental Evaluation has given the field tools to use when evaluating complexity. In her blog post, Hallie describes how she applied the method to an education reform evaluation in St. Paul.

Education reform is sticky enough. What about the impact of credit-default swaps? And LIBOR manipulation? The decision to allow Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to go under? The impact of bailing out banks?

That’s tough stuff, complexity for sure. Then again, if evaluators cannot deliver value to society on the really big problems, what are all the meetings for?

Today, right at three years after Lehman filed for bankruptcy protection, it’s still not clear what happened, or what it all meant. The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 6, 2011) is reporting that small banks received $4 billion federal funds this year to stoke lending to small businesses. The notion was that the capital infusion would unlock credit for small businesses and, in turn, stimulate the economy.

But then the banks turned around and used more than half – $2.2 billion – to repay federal loans they received previously, through the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Sorting this out is going to take a pretty robust disputatious community of truth seekers, to borrow Donald Campbell’s fierce imagery.

Then again, we’re a long way from Campbell’s Experimenting Society, which he imagined as “an honest society, committed to reality-testing, to self-criticism, to avoiding self-deception. It will say it like it is, face up to the facts, be undefensive and open in self-presentation.”

In the Experimenting Society, “there will be public access to the records on which social decisions are made. … There will be sufficient separation of governmental powers so that meaningful legal suits against the government are possible.”

Perhaps journalists will emerge as surrogate evaluators, carrying out at least a portion of the explanatory work.

Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner have made a valued contribution with Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Times Books, 2011). As captivating as it is, this book touches only some of the strands of the complexity.

We need more folks like Kelly Creedon.

Based in Boston, Kelly is a documentarian and artist and multimedia producer, a description that may point to the need for a multimedia evaluator.

Kelly has devoted the last few years to documenting, explaining and sharing the foreclosure stories behind the complexity. Her multimedia project includes a traveling exhibit and an online presence: We Shall Not Be Moved.

Here is how Kelly describes We Shall Not Be Moved: “The project tells the story of a growing grassroots movement that is using the power of bringing people together to help keep families in their homes after foreclosure.”

That’s the boilerplate. It’s notable enough, in that not many folks stick around after foreclosure to document what happens then, how residents organize to defy the order, to hang on.

Beyond the boilerplate, there are the stories.

Listen to one. Listen to a few. Listen to Marshall Cooper.

Given all the dominoes that tumbled since 2008, all of the systems that failed, all of the warning bells that either didn’t ring or rang and rang and rang, all of the internal audits and external regulators, all of the planning and ongoing feedback loops and all of the post-hoc evaluation and, for goodness sake, all of the lessons learned (every report on a crisis must end with a list of “lessons learned”)….given all of these evaluative tools and evaluation resources, how does all the $**t running downhill land on Marshall Cooper?


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