Have you seen evaluation reports that may be technically adequate and accurate, yet are almost impossible to decipher? They may have been full of detailed charts, tables, statistics, and qualitative research findings, yet they seemed to make no sense and it was difficult to understand their purpose.
According to internationally recognised evaluation specialist, E. Jane Davidson, Actionable Evaluation is a very simple concept: it is evaluation that can actually be used to make important decisions. Actionable evaluation is based on sound, evidence-based, evaluative reasoning. It asks important questions about quality, value and importance, and delivers straight-to-the-point actionable answers.
In her wonderfully engaging and practical book, Actionable Evaluation Basics: Getting succinct answers to the most important questions, Davidson identifies 6 key elements of actionable evaluation:
1. It has a clear purpose
An evaluation with a clear purpose is one that clearly asks who needs to learn what, for what purpose, by when, and to what level of certainty.
2. It uses the right stakeholder engagement strategy
It is important to identify who needs to be involved, what is the best way to engage with them, and at what point in the evaluation process.
3. It asks important, big picture evaluation questions
To avoid having an evaluation get lost in the details, an actionable and relevant evaluation will find the right questions to guide the work. They may be hard to answer, but it is still important o ask the questions that really matter. Some examples Davidson gives include:
- How well did the program address the most important root causes?
- How well designed and implemented was the program?
- What worked best for whom, under what conditions, and why?
- How sustainable is the impact?
- How worthwhile was the program overall? Which parts generated the most valuable outcomes for the time, money and effort invested?
4. It offers actual answers to the big picture questions
Actionable evaluations are not vague. They give clear answers to questions that actually answer the evaluation questions.
5. Its report is succinct and straight to the point
Good reporting, according to Davidson, can make or break the relevance of evaluation for different audiences. Actionable evaluation reports are not excessively long and wordy, they are not written using academic language, they do not enable the reader to get lost in the detail, and they make the key points apparent. They are succinct and get to the points fast.
6. It includes actionable answers and insights
Clients are looking for answers and insights that are actionable, and they can do something with. Davidson claims this is not necessarily a list of recommendations; it may be implications or insights, to give the internal client team their own chance to digest the information and come to their own decisions about what to do next.
Davidson practices what she preaches. She advocates for clear, actionable evaluation in her own succinct, accessible and persuasive way. She reminds us that good evaluation is about reasoning, not just methods. That is, not getting caught up in metrics or analysis methods if it means sacrificing the bigger picture aims. Evaluation reports should be simple without being simplistic. They should be easy to understand, without being misleadingly oversimplified. And finally, Davidson reminds us that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean it is an important measure to include in the evaluation.
Actionable evaluations are about relevance, keeping to the message, and not diverting from the most important judgement questions.
I’m up for the challenge to adhere to these actionable evaluation standards. Otherwise, there seems little point.
E. Jane Davidson, PhD. is an internationally recognised evaluation specialist. These points are from her 2012 publication Actionable Evaluation Basics: Getting succinct answers to the most important questions.