You're a What? A Program Evaluator?

Laura R. Peck, Ph.D.
Laura R. Peck, Ph.D.
Principal Scientist, Social & Economic Policy Division
Alvaro Cortes, Ph.D.
Alvaro Cortes, Ph.D.
Principal Associate, Social & Economic Policy Division
From dinner parties to our children’s career days in school, there’s a question that invariably comes up when we’re asked about our jobs: what do program evaluators do, exactly? The befuddlement makes sense—it’s an obscure job relative to most other professions. Here’s what we do:
First, program evaluators answer the question: what’s wrong out there? You can’t solve problems that you don’t understand, and so evaluators spend time assessing our social, health, education, and environmental problems. Understanding problem conditions is essential to designing better interventions that can ameliorate those problems. 
Next, with efforts in place to fix them, evaluators answer the follow-up question: how are the efforts being implemented, and how are they evolving over time? Most programs don’t work as intended on day one, instead taking weeks, months, or even years to mature and function as intended. That evolution needs to be understood because if the program is successful, others will want to know how to implement a similar program in their community.
Third, evaluators answer the fundamental question: did the program improve the conditions of our world? Using a variety of approaches and techniques, evaluators measure the impacts that programs have on the well-being of people and communities. Evaluators measure whether programs are really making a difference.
And, lastly, evaluators answer the question: are the impacts worth the cost?  Given limited resources and shrinking budgets, evaluators help ensure that society—private entities, philanthropic institutions, and government—is investing wisely.  As evaluators, we search for solutions that provide the biggest return on investment. Alternatively, if there is not a favorable return, then we provide the evidence needed to retool ineffective interventions or shift funds to other efforts.
But perhaps more than anything else, program evaluators use facts—generated through thoughtful research—over opinions. And we use these facts to decide what problems we tackle, how we tackle them, how impactful they are, and at what cost.  

Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of Abt Associates.
Shyamadas Banerji
I think a fundamental question was missed in the above note on the job of a program evaluator!
After reviewing what problem the program is addressing, the second key question is "Were the right tools( policies, instruments etc.) used to address the problem as identified?".Then come questions of how effectively the tools were implemented, were lessons learned during implementation utilized to improve the tools or introduce additional tools , did the outputs lead to the desired outcomes and to what extent, and are the outcomes sustainable.
1/6/2016 4:35:43 PM

Laura Peck
Dear Ted, Thank you for the compliment. What am I evaluating these days? Lots! Some sectoral job training programs for the U.S. Departments of Labor, and Health & Human Services; job search assistance strategies for welfare recipients (also for HHS); an education and counseling program for low-income, first-time homebuyers for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development... and I'm engaged in some methodological research on HOW we evaluate as well. I appreciate your interest. My best, Laura
11/9/2015 3:55:37 PM

Ted Anderson
Thanks for this article. Simple and straightforward. That's what I like.
p.s. What are you evaluating these days?
10/29/2015 10:46:05 AM

Karen Amatangelo-Block
Thank you Laura and Alvaro. Great and simple explanation of what we do here at Abt - boiling it down for those of us who don't do what you do!
10/27/2015 9:56:26 AM

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