Empowerment Evaluation’s 21st Anniversary: A Celebration, Comment & Critique


David Fetterman introduced empowerment evaluation to the field of evaluation during his presidential address 21 years ago. Since that time it has been used in over 16 countries, ranging from corporate offices of Google and Hewlett-Packard to squatter settlements and townships in South Africa. Empowerment evaluation has been used by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US. Department of Education, Stanford University School of Medicine, and Native American tribes in reservations stretching from Michigan to San Diego.

David Fetterman, Shakeh Kaftarian, Abraham Wandersman, and many other empowerment evaluators, have published 5 books on empowerment evaluation. The 21st anniversary of this approach was celebrated with a panel of luminaries who have helped shape empowerment evaluation with their critiques, concerns, and congratulations. They included Drs. Steward Donaldson, Michael Scriven, Michael Patton, and Marvin Alkin. Their comments are illuminating, engaging, and presented in this special topic edition of E&PP.

Celebrating the 21st anniversary of empowerment evaluation with our critical friends David Fetterman and Abraham Wandersman

This special topic edition of E&PP presents the insights of luminaries in the field who have helped shape empowerment evaluation with their critiques, concerns, and congratulations. We celebrate their contributions to empowerment evaluation. This special topic edition of E&PP presents their comments about an evaluation approach that, according to president Stewart Donaldson, has “gone viral” across the globe (Donaldson, 2015).
To set the stage for these critical friends’ comments, additional context for their discussion is provided. In addition, this special topic edition concludes with a brief comment on their thoughts.

Empowerment evaluation: An approach that has literally altered the landscape of evaluationStewart Donaldson

The quest for credible and actionable evidence to improve decision making, foster improvement, enhance self-determination, and promote social betterment is now a global phenomenon. Evaluation theorists and practitioners alike have responded to and overcome the challenges that limited the effectiveness and usefulness of traditional evaluation approaches primarily focused on seeking rigorous scientific knowledge about social programs and policies. No modern evaluation approach has received a more robust welcome from stakeholders across the globe than empowerment evaluation.
Empowerment evaluation has been a leader in the development of stakeholder involvement approaches to evaluation, setting a high bar. In addition, empowerment evaluation’s respect for community knowledge and commitment to the people’s right to build their own evaluation capacity has influenced the evaluation mainstream, particularly concerning evaluation capacity building. Empowerment evaluation’s most significant contributions to the field have been to improving evaluation use and knowledge utilization. 

Empowerment evaluation: Exemplary is its openness to dialogue, reflective practice, and process useMichael Quinn Patton


On the occasion of the 21 st anniversary of empowerment evaluation, congratulations are in order for having established global credibility, demonstrated utility, and for its exemplary openness to dialogue, reflective practice, and process use.
I remember well the 1993 annual convention of the American Evaluation Association in Dallas when David introduced the idea of empowerment evaluation in his presidential keynote. It was an innovative and radical approach that was met with much initial skepticism, but the approach has certainly prevailed, gaining not only legitimacy but utility, and, as evidenced in the documentary record, is being implemented and appreciated worldwide.
I've had the privilege over the years of engaging in dialogue with David, Abe, and others about various aspects of empowerment evaluation. Certainly ones of the ways in which empowerment evaluation is exemplary is its openness to dialogue and reflective practice. 

Empowerment evaluation 21 years later: There is much to admire about empowerment evaluation
Michael Scriven
There is much to admire about empowerment evaluation, and on this festive occasion, I will begin with the features that I most admire.

1 This approach begins with the people who know the most of any group about the actual operation of the program (or the product, policy, person, etc. if we go beyond program evaluation). This knowledge is often highly inaccessible for external evaluators and often crucial to the validity of the evaluation.
2 Empowerment Evaluation (EE) is dealing directly with the agency for implementation, and hence the people in perhaps the best position to implement recommendations for improvement.
3 Using program staff as the evaluators gives one access to and perhaps the best chance of control over abuses of staff and impactees.
4 Although this is not an unmixed blessing, it is often important that EE frequently converts agents into advocates.
5 In converting agents into advocates, EE can sometimes transcend the limits of a particular program and make them advocates for a methodology, not only EE, but serious tools used in its implementation.
6 EE provides a great machinery for three functions that are related to evaluation and frequently required in order to maximize its implementation: marketing, explaining, and justifying a program.
7 A powerful and possibly unique (in practice) level of the ethical and pragmatic use of meta-evaluation. I try to match David on this, and indeed advocate to David on this, by going further than his enthusiasms for the use of the “critical friend” to the use of “critical enemy” but am less successful. However, I never think of empirical evaluation without reflecting on his inspirational example of treating his critics as friends—and not just friends but helpers—as they indeed are. The connection between us is close because we are both part of that small group who really believe that proposition and act on it.

When is a theory a theory? A case example
Marvin C. Alkin

This discussion comments on the approximately 20 years history of writings on the prescriptive theory called Empowerment Evaluation. To do so, involves examining how “Empowerment Evaluation Theory” has been defined at various points of time (particularly 1996 and now in 2015). Defining a theory is different from judging the success of a theory. This latter topic has been addressed elsewhere by Michael Scriven, Michael Patton, and Brad Cousins. I am initially guided by the work of Robin Miller (2010) who has written on the issue of how to judge the success of a theory. In doing so, she provided potential standards for judging the adequacy of theories. My task is not judging the adequacy or success of the Empowerment Evaluation prescriptive theory in practice, but determining how well the theory is delineated. That is, to what extent do the writings qualify as a prescriptive theory. 

Celebratory reflections, appreciations, clarifications, and comments
David Fetterman and Abraham Wandersman

Our thanks are extended to each one of our critical friends. They have been an integral part of our lives for over two decades. They have enriched our understanding and held the bar high. They, along with the communities we work with, inspire us to improve both in theory and in practice. We conclude this special topic edition of Evaluation and Program Planning empowerment evaluation’s 21 anniversary celebration – with a few reflections, appreciations, clarifications, and comments concerning the panelists’ remarks. 


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