In program-centred evaluation, we take a technical, structural view of a program/service and assess the component parts (resources, content, flow, grades, completion rates) for their effectiveness as an assembled whole. Usually, we determine success by focusing on outputs. We may go so far as to assess the degree to which the outcomes of the program match stakeholder expectations, but even that is rare. Even more rare is to shift the gaze away from the program to the broader outcomes and impacts of the transformations that we hope have occurred as a result of the program. What is it that happens beyond the walls of the classroom? How do participants in a certification program benefit at work? What happens when recipients of a particular service apply that learning in their daily lives? How has a program or service improved the social context in some way?
By moving away from the primarily structural understanding of programs/services towards an investigation of the causal relationships between programs and outcomes, we not only re-establish the accountability between program/service provider and “recipient” (partner), but we discover new ways of accomplishing what we set out to do in the first place: create a positive, social change. We also shift the power dynamic between “provider” and “client”, and turn them into collaborators in social innovation.
This is because, to a great degree, our assumptions about learning and behaviour change are shaped by institutional learning. We tend to assume that something must be “taught” and “learned”, which implies a power differential in which some people “know” and others “don’t know”. A program/service is therefore created to transfer that “knowing” or “being able to do” from one to another.
There’s no question that many programs and services must be designed to transfer knowledge and develop new skills as efficiently and effectively as possible, but in the field of social innovation, a different approach is needed. If we see programs and services not as structural entities that are delivered but rather as catalysts for change (ie. if we begin by focusing our gaze on the social changes and impacts that might take place in the broader context as a result of the catalytic opportunities), then our approach to program planning and evaluation can also change. Program planning becomes less about building an instructional opportunity, and more about encouraging an emergent and collaborative process. If our aim is to have a positive impact on our community, (not to deliver program A or B), then we will work as co-stakeholders in new ways, keep different kinds of goals in mind, bring different kinds of resources to the table, participate in different kinds of activities, and … ultimately … look at what’s been accomplished in new ways.
In so doing, we will begin to change the conversation about the purpose of our program or service, and we may just find new ways to create ever greater changes.