Making Evaluation Meaningful  

by Tim Senior, CTC Researcher

Why evaluation matters  

Evaluation, when done right, can help individuals make sense of their arts and cultural life, help organisations understand the value of their work (or where they need to change), and help funders make good decisions on where funding should go. In reality, however, this is often not the case. Over the three years of the Connecting Through Culture project, we have worked with our co-researchers and partner organisations to ask how we can co-design better evaluation practices. Conventional approaches to evaluation fail in large part because they only serve some of those who should be at the centre of the process: evaluation may serve the needs of funders but run-counter to what organisations know matter to their service users; evaluation may serve the need of organisations or researchers, but feel extractive to those participating (through being tone-deaf to people’s lived experiences); evaluation may richly detail lived experiences, but frame those experiences in a way that leave funders and policy makers lost at sea. At worse, we are adopting a culture of evaluation that weakens, rather than strengths, the relationships between participants in arts/cultural life, organisations, funders and policy. The opportunity in Connecting Through Culture has been to collaboratively design (co-design) an evaluation practice for arts and cultural experiences that works for everyone involved.  

Good evaluation  

How it works

The prototype has a simple logic to it: you choose a themed envelope that best captures your motivation for attending an event (a workshops, a site or activity). There are five themes: I’m looking to Enjoy myself; I’m looking to Grow; I’m looking for a Role; I’m looking for connection; I’m looking to the Future. That envelope is then yours to keep, to be revisited later. At the end of the event, the envelope is then opened to reveal tokens describing different impacts connected to that theme, from which a selection can be made. Finally, opening-out the envelope reveals the question “What might I do next?” with prompts for reflection. In short, a connective thread is drawn between the promise of an event, it’s real-world meaning, and the potential it opens-up for the future – all in the context of someone’s own life-world and life-course. Within this logic, there is a high degree of flexibility, both in the depth of engagement that’s possible (aided through facilitation) but also the integration of these activities into arts and cultural events themselves: ‘Evaluation’ becomes a process of self-reflection that might be made part of The Experience, rather than an intrusive addition that serves solely the purposes of data collection for someone else.  

How we’re testing it  

We will be publishing our findings in the months to come.