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Tuesday, August 4 • 13:30 - 14:00
Examining the Promise of Systems Thinking to Transform Evaluation Practice

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Government agencies, foundations, and international development organizations seek to evaluate the consequences of policies and programs (i.e. social interventions) they fund. Evaluation practitioners who conduct these evaluations typically use methods based on linear models of social interventions and straightforward cause-effect thinking to examine whether interventions achieve their intended consequences. However, these approaches often fail to capture unintended and unpredictable consequences of interventions because they are not suited to addressing uncertain, complex, and non-linear social change. In the last ten years, the evaluation field has begun turning to systems thinking for alternative ways of understanding social interventions and change. While there are significant efforts to import systems thinking to other fields including public health, international aid and development, organizational management, and human services there has been little research on the value of systems thinking for evaluation practice. Translating insights from the systems thinking literature into the language and tasks of evaluation practice holds considerable promise for improving the latter undertaking.

This paper is a critical, analytical review of the interdisciplinary literature on systems thinking in relation to the evaluation of social interventions. The review discovers how systems thinking: (1) is conceptualized in the evaluation literature and (2) contributes to and challenges current assumptions that evaluation practitioners use to frame the task of evaluating social interventions. Journal articles, working papers, briefs, and conference proceedings published between 1988 and 2015 within select intervention-driven fields – public health, international aid and development, organizational management, education, and human services—were analyzed using categories based on a widely accepted, foundational framework of evaluation practice. Drawing on this literature, I argue that systems thinking compels intervention fields and agencies to re-frame the model of social problem solving that guides their work from predict-act-evaluate to adaptive management. For evaluation practice to be relevant and useful in an adaptive management model, it must transform its core assumptions regarding social interventions and context, methods, values, knowledge, and use. I contend that the promise of systems thinking lies in its potential to transform these assumptions and identify significant ways this transformation has begun unfolding in this literature.

avatar for Bob Williams

Bob Williams

Independent Consultant, Bob Williams
Independent consultant evaluator, based in New Zealand and holder of the current 2014 -15 Lazarsfeld Evaluation Theory Award from the American Evaluation Association. Has worked for the past few years on ways to make the systems and evaluation fields more attractive to each other... Read More →

avatar for Emily Gates

Emily Gates

Graduate Research Assistant, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Emily is an I-STEM graduate research assistant currently working on several program evaluations: the NSF-funded Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning (EnLiST) program; the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Coal Education Program; and... Read More →

Tuesday August 4, 2015 13:30 - 14:00 CEST
Stockholm 2 Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, Gabriele-Tergit-Promenade 19, 10963 Berlin, Germany

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