Using Program Evaluation to Your Project’s Advantage

The Project Implementation Puzzle

It’s useful to conceptualize project implementation as a puzzle, in which funding sources, project teams, and interventions form significant parts. Many project teams, however, imagine program evaluation as being located somewhere outside of this puzzle. This blog reflects on our Optimizing Success: Strategies to Leverage Program Evaluation for Project Implementation webinar, featuring Principal Consultant at The Pearson Evaluation and Education Research Group, LLC (The PEER Group). Dr. Yvette Pearson provides an overview as to why evaluation should instead be considered an integral part of project implementation.

The Value of Evaluation

Though program evaluation is sometimes perceived as a requirement by grant agencies, it is a valuable tool for principal investigators, program officers, and evaluators alike. Program evaluation can help project teams: understand their successes and hurdles, learn what works and doesn’t, take steps toward continuous improvement, and demonstrate the impact of their work.

All four of these elements are of value to projects at any stage of the grant, and insights in one area frequently interact with and inform the development of others. 

Using Evaluation Findings

To make the best use of evaluation findings, the following three tactics are helpful:

1. Begin a project with the end in mind. Important questions to ask include: what are the project’s outputs? What are the project’s outcomes? What value is the project trying to add? Meeting early on with a project’s evaluator can help frame implementation around these types of questions and produce clearer insights at a project’s end.

2. Use program evaluation findings to inform internal decision-making. The results from a project’s evaluation can reveal what aspects of implementation are most successful as well as aspects that need improvement. Careful consideration and integration of findings can contribute to more streamlined processes as a project progresses from year to year.

3. Utilize evaluation findings to communicate impact with external entities. Measures of impact are central to any project’s implementation goal, and the sharing out of evaluation findings provides transparency as well as opportunities for successful frameworks to be adapted by other organizations. Accordingly, plans for dissemination of evaluation findings should be developed with as much consideration as plans for data collection or analysis.

How to Handle Unexpected Evaluation Findings

As any principal investigator, program officer, or program evaluator knows, project implementation does not always go according to plan. Here are four practices to keep in mind when evaluation findings are different from what was anticipated:

1. Shift your frame: It’s important to conceptualize program evaluation not as a critique or punishment, but instead as a channel through which project teams receive feedback and improve. This shift from negative to positive can help show unexpected findings in a more constructive light.

2. Understand reality: Take the time to gather a comprehensive understanding of the findings and what implementation factors may have contributed to them. The more informed the project team is about the nature of the issues, the better equipped they are to respond to them. 

3. Accept the findings: Problems that aren’t acknowledged cannot be fixed. After gaining a holistic understanding of the project’s problems, emphasize those aspects that are under your control, and develop plans for how to best address them.

4. Put in the work: Take the necessary steps to address and resolve the identified issues.

Summary

Program evaluation should be leveraged as a valuable part of the project implementation puzzle, as it provides insights that improve processes and outcomes. These insights can also be used to inform various levels of project-level decision-making. Further, project teams should take the time to truly understand what evaluation findings are communicating – especially when they vary from what is detailed in the project proposal – to yield the greatest possible impact from a project.

This blog post has been an overview of the main points. Be sure to visit the webinar recording to get a full discussion on this topic.  

For more information on using program evaluation, check out our Coffee Break Webinar, Optimizing Success: Strategies to Leverage Program Evaluation for Project Implementation


Written by:

The Rucks Group’s 2022 Summer Research Intern, Jordan Harris