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A society without a grounding in ethics, self-reflection, empathy and beauty is one that has lost its way.
(Brian Rosenberg)

SEPTEMBER 24, 2015

What's happening in evaluation in Australia? A short report on a two-week stint.

I had the honour of being invited by the Australasian Evaluation Society (AES) as a special guest to the 2015 AES Conference that took place in Melbourne from September 6 to 9. The Australian trip also included a contribution to an important Commonwealth government event as well as a participation to a two-day symposium at Charles Darwin University (CDU). I would like to share some of my observations with you.

The 2015 AES Conference had a lot in common with our 2015 Montreal Conference with regard to context: it was of a similar size and in a similar venue, and it took place in a city that shares characteristics with Montreal (cosmopolitan, arts focussed, good dining, etc.). The AES conference last three full days where ours last 2.5 days. And its cost was higher. The atmosphere at the AES conference was collegial and supportive, as was the tone at our conference. Another similarity: discussions tended to be consensual rather than controversial. Maybe we are equally too polite.

I used the Canadian evaluation competency domains to structure my thoughts with regard to the content of the conference. Based on a superficial analysis of the AES and CES conference programs, the Australian conference:

All in all, I conclude from taking part in this conference that evaluation practice in Australia and New Zealand share more similarities than differences with the Canadian approaches to evaluation. There are, however, areas of concern and interest that are more developed in Australasia and where Canadians can benefit from our colleagues' more advanced thought leadership. Keep your eyes open for the publication of the presentations (presentations from past conferences are available on-line).

I gave one workshop and gave three presentations at the AES conference; they were well received (but then again, controversy was not typical, as it is not at our conference).

The second event was a half-day session on evaluation as part of performance measurement. A few years ago, Australia adopted the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act (PGPA) with a view to implement an enhanced whole-of-government performance framework. This framework came into effect in July 2015. Commonwealth departments and agencies must deliver an annual corporate plan as well as an annual performance statement in which entities have to measure and assess their performance. Attention now turns to strengthening the ability of entities to report, and addressing quality of non-financial performance information (and particularly qualitative evidence of impact).

Three speakers were invited to address a group of some 250 public servants involved in performance measurement and evaluation from across the Australian Commonwealth government. Penny Hawkins, Head of Evaluation at the UK Department of International Development, provided an international perspective on evaluating government performance; Associate Professor Janet M. Clinton, Director of the Centre of Program Evaluation, University of Melbourne, spoke of her national and international experience as an evaluator, psychologist and educator; and I described the Government of Canada Policy on Evaluation and shared observations and findings from its recent evaluation.

The presentations and follow-up discussions were quite interesting. The presentation by Penny Hawkins of the South African experience and its contrast with that of the federal government in Canada were illuminating: it is vain to look for a one-size-fits-all solution (the realists have won!). Here again, I am convinced that Canadian and Australians have insights to share on the importance of diverse and context-relevance respective experiences.

Finally, I took part in a two-day symposium at the Northern Institute of the Charles Darwin University, in the Australian Northern Territory. The overall aim of the symposium was to build capacity in providing and using policy-relevant research and evidence in Northern Australian contexts. The symposium took systematic account of the many specific characteristics of the Northern Australian context, such as: very low population density which translates into less political attention and higher data collection costs; a younger, more male, and much more likely indigenous population; low education, limited literacy; higher unemployment rate; different cultural traits and lifestyle; limited Internet access in places; proximity of Indonesia; etc. Through presentations and discussions, the symposium opened various avenues for action that the Northern Australians now have to turn into action. My own contribution was to describe the evidence infrastructure in Canada and to address the notion of evidence-based (or better, evidence-informed) policy-making. I will share these reflections with you soon.

I come back from that trip reinvigorated (well, after I absorb the 14-hour jet lag) and with one central new idea (new to me anyway) that I will develop some more and share with you soon. I want to thank everyone who gave me a warm welcome in Australia, in particular Lyn Alderman, President of the AES; Emma Williams from CDU who opened many doors; Bill Wallace and Jacqui Diamond from the AES who made sure I knew where to be at the conference; Janet Clinton from the University of Melbourne who found room for me in the program; and Amy Gullickson and Christian Arbour (Centre for program evaluation, University of Melbourne) who generously took me around Melbourne.


Benoît Gauthier, President, Circum Network

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