2 Stakeholders and evaluation
Why involve stakeholders?
There are, to my knowledge, very few accounts of evaluation of any type that nowadays ignore the topic of stakeholders or interest groups. This is because the majority of the theories or approaches to evaluation accept that the design, operation and outcome of an evaluation are improved if the stakeholders of a particular development, project or programme are involved. Opinions vary significantly, however, as to who or what constitutes a stakeholder and what their role or function should be. They may, for example, be passive providers of information or proactive participants in the design, application and final report of an evaluation.
From my analysis of the literature referenced throughout this unit I would suggest that an evaluator’s approach to stakeholders and participation reflects their position on the two paradigms or approaches to research and evaluation that have already been outlined – the scientific and the naturalistic. In general terms, the closer to the scientific paradigm an evaluator locates themselves, the more restrictive the model of stakeholder participation they tend to advocate. In the past, in some fields of evaluation at least, this produced evaluations that:
... typically treated the public as a passive patient or even adversary; social impacts were assessed by outside ‘experts’ who sometimes had little local knowledge (and occasionally little other experience), and the results were presented as an often inaccessible and unintelligible report made available to a restricted group of decision makers. Alternatively results would be ‘published’ or discussed at a public hearing by a skilled presenter who was able to shrug off awkward questions.
Reaction against the ‘cult of expert’ that tended to dominate in many fields of evaluation through the 1960s and 1970s (and probably still does in certain fields) certainly led to a change in mindset. In IT/IS, for example, Remenyi et al. (2000, p. 267) advocate ‘integrating a continuous participative evaluation activity’ into projects. They refer to this approach as ‘Active Benefit Realisation’ (ABR), and while recognising that it requires ‘a mind-set shift’ they claim there are significant benefits from a ‘partnership and a co-evolution’ approach, such as stakeholders developing a fuller understanding of the problems and opportunities of the system. Figure 2 illustrates the ABR evaluation process.
Here we have an example of an important benefit that is claimed for stakeholder involvement – better understanding and appreciation of the problems and opportunities of a project or development. Several others are commonly cited. One of the most influential, in terms of promoting the acceptance of stakeholders, is ‘the promise that people who have participated in a study will be more likely to put its findings to use’ (Weiss, 1998, p. 107). Another is taking ‘stakeholders’ views and concerns into consideration in order for an evaluation to be considered credible and fair’ (Chen, 2006, p. 234). In summary, Weiss (1998) suggests that the benefits of stakeholder involvement include:
- winning support for evaluation
- gaining their cooperation thereby improving data collection and quality
- improving trust in the evaluators and the methods used
- increasing the likelihood of buy-in and ownership of the findings of the evaluation.
Broad-based acceptance of the principle and benefits to evaluation of stakeholder participation is one thing. However, the literature on evaluation illustrates a lack of agreement on two other related factors:
- exactly who or what constitutes a stakeholder (i.e. how they are defined)
- the scale, scope and purpose of stakeholder involvement/participation.