Public programmes are designed to achieve certain objectives. Different governments, international organizations and multilateral aid agencies fund and implement interventions that intend to reduce poverty, improve public health and improve quality of education, among other things. However, these interventions work in a complex ecosystem involving myriad players and it is not straightforward to determine whether the interventions have worked or not. It requires rigorous impact evaluation methodologies to find out whether there were any changes due to the intervention.
The main aim of an evaluation exercise is to find out whether there were any changes after an intervention, and if there were changes, how much of it can be attributed to the intervention. In other words, it is the science and art of finding out what works and what does not work in the public policy sphere. Over the years, impact evaluation has become almost mandatory requirement to any large intervention. Many organizations have developed state-of-the-art expertise in providing impact evaluation services to governments, international organizations and aid agencies.
As the discipline expands, two basic questions can be asked about the nature of the role that impact evaluation plays in development sector programmes. The first question is whether impact evaluation makes the actual objectives of a development intervention redundant. The first thing should be kept in mind that the prerequisite of any impact evaluation exercise is a carefully planned intervention. So, the primary focus of the agencies should on implementing the intervention.
The second question raised is whether impact evaluation does really make a difference. When we ask this, we would like to know how many policy decisions were actually taken based on the results from an evaluation exercise. Are the learnings from evaluation able to change the way policy making is approached by different governments, international organizations and multilateral aid organizations, which forms the main consumers of impact evaluation reports? If it is not happening, there is something wrong, and valuable learnings from years of experience in the field are being lost into voluminous reports that hardly anyone reads to any effect. These questions are better asked to the evaluators themselves.
There is an urgent need for the evaluators around the globe to ponder on these issues and find ways to rediscover the discipline. Impact evaluation must not be reduced to a routine exercise which is carried out for the sake of it. It is imperative that every researcher asks one simple question, “How can I make my work count?” The good news is that there are ways to make it happen. The best way to do it is to make sure that the learnings from evaluation reach a wider audience.
The broader goal is to create a voice in favour of evidence based policy making. Making the learnings of research accessible to the public is the first step towards achieving it. Evaluators can make more use of their research by owning the research outcomes and making them available through diverse forms of media. Bringing together everybody in the profession through seminars, workshops etc. and creating a strong and vibrant community of evaluators for knowledge sharing will be very helpful in this regard. The power of information & communication technology (ICT), internet and social media can be leveraged to this effect.