Defining Evaluation

What is evaluation and what is evaluation research?

Evaluation is an activity designed to judge the merits of a government policy or program.

This does not necessarily equate even formal evaluation with evaluation research, which is more to the point of policy analysis. This formal definition involves social science and professional training. Do not confuse evaluation with its less common relative, evaluation research:

Evaluation research is devoted to the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of information concerning the need, design, implementation, and impact of public policy.

Note that the broader process of informal evaluation takes place in many contexts: budgeting, speeches, newspapers, elections. This has been around for a long time and is not to be confused with the thrust of social science evaluation research over the last quarter century.

A distinction must be made between the stage in the policy process that analysis is utilized: ex post is done after the policy is formulated and implemented and ex ante is done early in the formulation stage. While some methods, like benefit-cost analysis can go either way, evaluation research methods are applied after a program is implemented. During the policy formulation stage, methods may also be brought to bear, but this is to help analyze the best course of action, not determine whether the policy or program is actually working effectively.

Evaluation research can be broadly conceived, but is almost always after the fact. Other methods are used to either formulate or evaluate policy, such as systems analysis, simulation, and benefit-cost analysis.

In the study of public policy, evaluation, when it is considered at all, is normally cast as a careful, even scientific, research activity. Not so here. Why? Certainly, evaluation can be methodical and rigorous but, more frequently and at best, substantive evaluation occurs informally, such as in the formation of public opinion. The definitions above provide a useful warm-up, but the operational explanation is what really counts.

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The Public Policy Web
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork, 5/22/2001

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