Now that the 2017 AES conference has wrapped up I thought I’d capture some of my reflections in this short post. In part, I’ve been thinking about what some of the themes are from the conference mean for us (evaluators) going forward. In particular, some of these themes highlight to me (in my view) a shift in the mindset of evaluators attending the conference. I’ve tried to synthesise these and I welcome comments or reflections from you (the reader).
Earlier today I read through Jo Farmer’s reflections from the conference, and a key point that stuck with me was that of empowerment through evaluation. This resonated strongly with me in how I’ve begun to see the use of language and, importantly, what that language promises to those around us when we’re undertaking evaluations.
This promise was something that I tried to pick up on through my own talk on approaches to design and how evaluation can draw on and reflect back on these. I think that as ‘design’ becomes more prevalent through government programs and policies evaluators will be required to understand these approaches and, importantly, be responsible for calling out when these terms are applied inappropriately – a conversation is not the same as co-design!
On the point of design, there is clearly an appetite among us (evaluators) for learning more about design. But more than just design, we’re hungry to learn about more – more about technological opportunities, more about techniques, more about how we can do better. Maybe the best summary is that there’s an appetite to spend more time learning from and with each other, rather than just ‘hearing’ from each other (i.e. the standard presentation approach).
This provides a powerful motivator for those of us involved in organising the 2018 AES conference – we need to respond to this appetite and provide spaces for people to learn from each other. A space for new techniques, mindsets and opportunities to discuss and collaborate on things that is of mutual interest.
This was particularly prevalent (but not exclusive) to conversations that I had with ‘newer’ evaluators or attendees (newer in terms of time in the industry, rather than age). This group is an important segment of the AES and one in which I feel is sometimes forgotten in the grand scheme of things. As a colleague of mine said, sometimes there’s this feeling of being an ‘imposter’ when you're the 'new kid on the block', and I think the AES has an opportunity to better support and empower this group of its members.
This dovetails with my final reflection rather well – what I would call an increasing interest in vulnerability.
On the last day of the conference (actually, as I was literally heading out the door to the airport,) I had a conversation with someone who commented on the effectiveness of talks that possessed a degree of vulnerability. I had to agree, in particular, for those that I saw it made the presenter more engaging, but also the content tended to be more relateable.
In comparison to the 2016 (Perth) and 2015 (Melbourne) conferences, I feel that many of the talks this year possessed this trait. To my mind, this partially reflects a shift in the desire of evaluators' for this type of content – examples where things have been hard, where we’ve struggled, made mistakes or just haven’t been the ‘perfect’ evaluator. Perhaps this is an expansion of the ‘appetite’ theme for a different way of going about things.
I know in my early days I would have loved the chance to talk with others about the learnings they had from tough situations (or just mistakes that were made). I feel like this is an area of opportunity for the AES for the 2018 conference – to create this safe space for evaluators to share these vulnerabilities (and lessons). While the evaluation consulting world is one of competition (many of the presenters work at companies or firms who we bid against on a regular basis), I think we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot we can learn from each other.
It is important to recognise that we’re all on the same side and I think that as a practice and Society we can only improve more than ever if we explore our failures, as well as our successes.
Hope to see you at the 2018 AES Conference in Launceston, Tasmania.