Developmental Evaluation

January 20, 2018 | By Julia Roy

What is developmental evaluation? Why would I use it?

Developmental evaluation is an approach to evaluation based on systems thinking and complexity theory. In contrast to summative evaluation which is used to determine the value of an existing program or initiative in order to make recommendations, developmental evaluation is used when developing a new and innovative program, or when making significant changes to an existing program. The changes made when using developmental evaluation are transformational and not merely improvements to a program. It is useful when there is no clearly defined end and therefore the pathway to that end is unclear, as opposed to formative evaluation which is used to either fine-tune the development of a new program that has clearly defined goals or for continuous feedback of an ongoing program.

Not only is the end result unclear in a developmental evaluation but it may change throughout the development process resulting in a high degree of uncertainty. A developmental approach allows for adjustment and changes based on timely feedback. Unintended consequences and side effects can be seen and responded to in real time. Each decision and adjustment in the path is tracked creating a map of the process from start to finish. Social programs that address complex issues like poverty and/or homelessness are good examples of complex issues for which developmental evaluation can be useful. The target end-point is not clearly defined and unintended consequences that result from potential solutions are likely to occur. Re-evaluation and flexible thinking are important.

Methods used in developmental evaluation are common to other evaluation approaches (e.g., interviews, focus groups, surveys, observations), however, in developmental evaluation the evaluator guides the process so that questioning and learning happen alongside the action. In traditional approaches, the first step is planning, followed by action, and finally evaluation. In developmental evaluation, the planning, action, and evaluation all occur simultaneously from the beginning.

Two streams of data are collected in a developmental evaluation. The first is that which informs the program or model. It is the information that the decisions that shape the final outcome are based on. The second stream of data documents the process. This creates a roadmap of where the process started, where is ended and all the steps in between.

For a more in-depth discussion about developmental evaluation see Sig Knowledge Hub or take a look at the BetterEvaluation website for information as well as links to videos and resources.  The Tamarack Institute also has a webinar on Developmental Evaluation Principles in Practice with Mark Cabaj and Michael Quinn Patton.

Gamble, J.A.A. (2008). A developmental evaluation primer. Retrieved from

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