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Creative Evaluation and Engagement: Evaluation for Transformation

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

In a world brimming with complexity and constant change, the approach of Creative Evaluation and Engagement (CE&E) emerges as a transformative framework, designed to address social justice issues through a unique blend of developmental, principles-focused, and arts-infused evaluation methods. This comprehensive methodology isn't just a collection of buzzwords; it's a carefully crafted approach that combines various aspects to create meaningful social transformation.

Understanding CE&E

A. Rafael Johnson and I developed CE&E when we realized the benefit of putting his training and expertise (the arts and arts-based methods) together with mine (developmental and principles-focused evaluation). Speaking for myself, I know that I was not trained to support transformative efforts. Programs? Maybe. But the harder change? Not so much. Liberation, I am sure, has never been achieved through randomized controlled trials, peer-reviewed journal articles, or powerpoint transformation. Art, however, has the power to engage and change hearts, minds, and spirits. 

We spent a few years working together and, with the gift of the rights to the first Creative and Evaluation book from Michael Quinn Patton, we found a framework emerging.

The Intellectual Framework of CE&E

The framework brings together the following approaches to learning and evaluation.

Developmental Evaluation (DE): At its core, CE&E employs developmental evaluation to support the evolution of innovations in dynamic and complex environments. This approach is crucial for the adaptation of new projects, programs, products, organizational changes, policy reforms, and systemic interventions to ever-changing realities. (Read more about DE.)

Principles-focused Evaluation (P-FE): CE&E is grounded in principles-focused evaluation. This aspect ensures that the guiding principles of a project or initiative are at the forefront, influencing every stage of the evaluation process. (Read more about P-FE)

Arts-based Evaluation: The arts-infused element of CE&E stands out as a particularly innovative feature. It involves using artistic methods, such as painting, sculpture, dance, theater, music, and poetry, to collect, analyze, and report data. This approach not only enriches the evaluation process but also makes it more accessible and engaging. (Read more about art for transformation.)

A Commitment to Social Justice: The commitment to social justice is a fundamental pillar of CE&E. This focus ensures that the evaluation and engagement processes actively contribute to creating a more equitable, just, and liberated society.

The Process of CE&E

So we have a lot of frameworks. But what do we actually do? The make it tangible, we describe CE&E as an interactive and continuous flow consisting of four interconnected phases: Align, Learn, Adapt, and Embody.

In the Align phase, the mission, vision, values, guiding principles, and learning purposes are established. This phase emphasizes the importance of language, power, and perspectives in the evaluation process. The key activities are:

  • Articulate Vision: Describe a healthy, equitable, and inspiring vision for the initiative being evaluated.

  • Define Purpose: Identify a clear and compelling reason for the evaluation.

  • Illuminate Context: Learn about relevant histories, people, organizations, and communities surrounding the initiative.

  •  Identify Guiding Principles: Develop, illuminate, or refine guiding principles.

The Learn phase involves developing and implementing action and learning plans. This phase focuses on shared inquiry questions, co-created methods, and the process of making sense of learnings and reflections. The key activities are:

  • Craft Questions: Design big picture evaluation questions.

  • Gather Evidence: Gather credible and meaningful evidence.

  • Make Sense: Facilitate individual and collective sensemaking.

  • Surface Insights: Bring practical wisdom into conversation with aspirational goals

In the Adapt phase, action plans, learning plans, and resources are continuously modified to keep pace with new developments and insights. The key activities are:

  • Engage: Engage with a journey orientation.

  • Reflect: Hold time and space for reflection.

  • Move: Make decisions and act. Move into new possibilities.

Embody. The final phase, Embody, is about fully embracing the commitment to sensory understanding, relationships, and care. It marks the beginning of a renewed journey in a changed context.  The key activities are:

  • Evoke: Embody through evocative playback and engaging the senses.

  • Relate: Prioritize relationships.

  • Care: Tend to wellness - your own and others'.

The Unique Contribution of CE&E

While the "Learn" and "Adapt" phases are fundamental to developmental evaluation, the inclusion of the "Align" and "Embody" phases represents a distinctive enhancement to the process. The "Align" phase was incorporated after recognizing how often programs under evaluation operated below their potential due to fragmentation and misalignment of people, components, resources, and efforts. Instead of conducting evaluations that merely highlight these misalignments, we advocate redirecting efforts towards alignment. This proactive approach is more likely to yield the desired outcomes than mere evaluation.

The "Embody" phase draws inspiration from the arts, recognizing the power of emotional resonance in capturing and maintaining our attention. Emotional salience not only makes an experience memorable but ensures that it lingers with us, prompting internal change over time and encouraging the sharing of these experiences with others. This aspect of "stickiness," often absent in traditional evaluations, is crucial. Without it, reports and findings risk being overlooked or forgotten, relegated to gather dust on shelves, or lie dormant in digital storage. By embedding this emotional engagement within the evaluation process, we ensure that the insights and learnings have a lasting impact, resonating beyond the immediate experience.

The inclusion of 'care' in our framework marks a significant departure from the traditional emphasis on objectivity within the field. This shift acknowledges a fundamental truth: the sustainability and effectiveness of our work, especially in the realm of social justice, are deeply intertwined with our well-being and that of our colleagues. Social justice endeavors are inherently challenging and often emotionally taxing. To persevere in these efforts, we must prioritize self-care and mutual support. This approach is not just about personal health; it's a strategic imperative. By nurturing our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, we equip ourselves to engage more fully and effectively in our work. Finally, integrating care into our professional practices serves as a model of the very principles we advocate for in social justice work. It reflects a commitment to compassion, empathy, and holistic well-being, not just for the communities we serve but also for ourselves and our colleagues. In doing so, we create a more sustainable and humane approach to social justice, one that acknowledges and values the human element at the heart of all transformative work.

In Summary

CE&E stands apart from traditional evaluation frameworks, which often fall short in assessing open-ended or infinite systems. By treating the context for social change as an open system characterized by volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability, CE&E allows for a more accurate and relevant evaluation.

When and Who Needs CE&E

CE&E is essential for changemakers, leaders, organizations, and initiatives aiming to thrive amidst upheaval and inequity. It is particularly suited for those committed to a creative and open-hearted approach to making the world more just.

The How of CE&E

CE&E moves systems towards greater health and equity by engaging in an adaptive action cycle, continually asking and answering critical questions about the system's functioning, disconnects, and potential future actions.

The Why of CE&E

Creative Evaluation and Engagement is not just an evaluation methodology; it's a commitment to co-creating a more whole, beautiful, and just world. By integrating developmental, principles-focused, and arts-based evaluation methods, CE&E offers a unique and effective approach to understanding and fostering social change. It's a framework designed for those who are serious about transforming systems, breaking away from business as usual, and embracing a journey of learning, unlearning, and creative disruption.


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