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Most program evaluations face two problems:
1) they put the program at the centre of inquiry risking that the evaluation assigns too much causal power to the program;
2), they don't generally build on or contribute to evaluations of similar programs, thus squandering an opportunity to cumulate learning and insight over time.
This presentation outlines a new approach, called outcome trajectory evaluation (OTE), that sets out to alleviate both. OTE is built on the complex adaptive systems view that the sorts of outcome that programs seek to achieve are rarely, if ever, one-off events but rather emerge over time as the result of interacting and co-evolving systems of actors, knowledge, technology and institutions. OTE starts with identifying and understanding the outcome trajectories to which the program contributed before then inquiring into if, how and to what extent the program contributed to the outcome trajectories. OTE makes use of published so-called middle-range theory (MRT) to inform the description and understanding of outcome trajectories and the program's contribution to them. MTRs are positioned between universal social theories on one hand, and more location- and context-specific program theory/ToC on the other. They apply to clusters of similar programs, e.g., MRTs can be derived from broad policy change theory to apply to programs trying to influence public policies. In principle, MRTs have the potential to serve as reusable conceptual platforms to cumulate learning and insight from one evaluation to the next, within a cluster. The presentation shares early results of putting this principle to the test.
Boru Douthwaite, Director, Selkie Consulting Ltd, selkie.ie