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Using Developmental Evaluation (DE) to support Social Innovation

by Ken Hoffman, Partner One World Inc  and Innoweave DE Coach.

It is an exciting – and somewhat unsettling – time for governments and social agencies.  Increasingly, they are realizing that conventional program approaches are reaching their limits in dealing with broad, complex issues like homelessness or childhood obesity.  They are seeking out new and innovative approaches and working with new partners, often in broad coalitions.  They are exploring new approaches to funding these initiatives.  To do this kind of innovative work, however, they often find they are in unfamiliar territory where the usual tools just don’t do the job anymore, like being lost in a strange city with a compass but no map.

The more conventional approaches to evaluation – progress and summative evaluation – are not very useful in a situation where you don’t have a full understanding of the problem you are trying to address, much less the solution.  Social innovators need an approach that can help them to better understand the complex issues on which they are working, and give them timely feedback that they can use in rapid prototyping of solutions. Michael Quinn Patton developed the Developmental Evaluation (DE) approach to deal with these exact issues.

DE is an approach that emphasizes learning throughout a process rather than “passing judgment” on whether something was a success or failure.  As such, it is best suited to organizations or groups that are, themselves, interested in learning and innovation.  This innovation mindset involves an openness to new perspectives about an issue, and a willingness to try and learn from different approaches.  This mindset also tolerates failure, as long as you can learn from the experience.

Jamie Gamble describes three main stages in a developmental evaluation.  First, is framing the issue. The people involved need to clarify how they understand the issue they wish to address.  Members of a diverse group of stakeholders may, in fact, have different ways of looking at the same issue; different perspectives can be very useful, providing a more “three-dimensional” understanding of the issue.  The group also needs to put their assumptions about the issue on the table so they can be made explicit.  The stakeholders can then state, the goal they wish to achieve and the conditions that need to be in place in order for that goal to be achieved. This is known as a Theory of Change. This kind of exercise can be very valuable in helping everyone involved to share their thinking and perspectives about an issue, and then to design the intervention.

Second, testing of quick iterations. Sometimes the best way to develop new interventions is to test them out on a small scale, with the intent of learning as much as possible from the testing process. Developmental evaluation is an approach that purposefully captures the learning so it can help to inform improvements.

Third, is tracking the trajectory of the innovation. The path to developing an innovation is seldom straightforward.  Assumptions are tested through the quick iterations.  Learnings from this testing are incorporated into future iterations, and also help to build a better understanding of the issue. Developmental evaluation tracks this path to help to clarify when and how key decisions were made. This information can be particularly useful when trying to disseminate innovations to new settings.

A couple of examples where the DE approach has been used:

  • Eva’s Initiatives, a Toronto social agency working in the area of Youth Homelessness developed the Mobilizing Local Capacity initiative as a strategy to support Canadian communities to develop their own strategies to address Youth Homelessness.  Very few Canadian communities have such strategies.  The model to support these communities was to work with a small number of communities by providing a “coach” and access to expertise from across Canada, as well as a small amount of seed money.  The communities also learned from each other through the process, building a much broader base of experiences.  Eva’s used DE to develop a Theory of Change for the initiative, as well as a process to learn from the participating communities about the effectiveness of the model of support.
  • Childhood obesity and lack of physical activity are significant health problems.  PHE Canada, a national membership-based organization that works with Health and Physical Education teachers, wanted to support the uptake of a whole new approach to supporting the development of school environments that promote health.  Health Promoting Schools helps schools to change their cultures so that everything that happens in a school – from classroom curricula to fundraising – can be viewed through a health promoting lens.  DE was used to develop a social movement approach for disseminating the Health Promoting Schools initiative across Canada.

In both of these cases, DE helped organizations in the process of developing, testing and implementing totally new approaches to addressing complex issues.  DE is a tool that helps these organizations to map a new course across the challenging terrain that they find around them.