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You're a What? A Program Evaluator?

October 16, 2015
Laura R. Peck, Ph.D.
Laura R. Peck, Ph.D.
Principal Scientist, 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:
 

Alvaro Cortes, Ph.D.
Alvaro Cortes, Ph.D.
Principal Associate, Social & Economic Policy Division

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.  

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