How Politicians and Commissioners of Evaluation have “Captured” the evaluative space in SA

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By Takunda Chirau

Ever found yourself 6 months into the evaluation process, with an evaluation commissioner stating, “Find us evidence for us to shut this project down” and yourself as the evaluator wondering … “what just happened”?…..

In recent times, the word ‘capture’ has become synonymous with the South African political economy. For the purposes of this article, I have borrowed the term ‘capture’ to illustrate how South African politicians and or any other commissioners of evaluation capture evaluations. The theoretical explanation of ‘capture’ was defined by Sutch (2015:2) stated as “the actions of individuals or groups both in the public and private sectors, influencing the formation of laws, regulations, decrees and other government policies to their own personal advantage”.

Whenever evaluations are commissioned, politics and evaluations are by its nature inherent and directly influence each other. Hay (2015) a critical thought leader in this space, defines politics as, “a process for holding to account those charged with responsibility for collective decision-making in the community decision-making in the community”. In my opinion, politics may be seen as a channel through which various stakeholders (including politicians) use their power to affect the process and outcomes of an evaluation according to their own agendas. In most cases, these agendas are “not ideas, but, material and ideal interest, directly governing men’s conduct” (Hay, 2015). On the other hand evaluation in its simplest form entails determining the relevance and fulfilment of objectives, development efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability of a project, programme or policy (Public Service Commission 2008:3).

As an inquisitive evaluator, I have realised how the capture of evaluation(s) in some cases contribute to the continued suffering of masses or where evaluation results may push certain political agendas. Evaluation knowledge is often romanticised by political office bearers or stakeholder involved to represent the ‘unpresentable’ and ultimately those supposed to benefit from policies. They have the power to affect each evaluation step on the evaluation continuum. Whereas evaluations are intended to contribute to development and reduction of poverty through programmes and policies.

Politics and Evaluation: The Nexus

The interplay of politics may ruin evaluation efforts particularly those that are able to provide reliable information. Hendrick (1988) claims that “…political pressures may bias the scope of evaluation research, press unrealistic time frames, attempt to force evaluators to distort study findings, disseminate results selectively in ways biasing the original study towards specific agendas, or suppress the release of an evaluation report”. It is a public secret that most government evaluation results are romanticised to portray a good impression of the impact of a specific development programme. This is often times not representative of the real sentiment on the ground. Hence a litany of policies and decisions are not necessarily informed by the evaluation results but rather the agendas and ideologies of politicians and organisations commissioning evaluations. As an evaluator I am partial to the notion that we have a reasonable degree of authority and autonomy, which may be stunted by commissioners of evaluation through their interference in the evaluation process. Given this “capture” evaluator’s ethics, or preserving the values in the face of politics, are often pressurized by various parties with competing and differing interests (particularly on the various types of outcomes). Although loosely documented, evaluation results are often predetermined and are done so imperceptibly through suggestion (often representing the interests of that party). I ask myself, and challenge YOU to question yourself: “is there a value free evaluation free from interference? Evaluation(s) are contextual and commonly take place in a political ecosystem where values, beliefs and ideologies are always in conflict. While we cannot deny that politics play a significant role, once there is political buy-in, it is guaranteed that the evaluation knowledge becomes effective and utilitarian and not placed in file 13. Curiously the words of Datta (2011) who describes politics as ‘a bad master but a good friend’, comes to mind. Political interference may influence an evaluation and denying that occurs would not only be naïve but perilously idealistic. As an evaluator I long to see a world of evaluation free from political and or evaluation commissioner influence and where politics will cease to determine and direct the outcomes of an evaluation.

What are your thoughts?

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