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Tips for Becoming a Leader in the Field of Program and Policy Evaluation

October 9, 2019 12:13 PM

By Stephen Bell, APPAM Policy Council Member

It took an invitation to share my ideas on how to advance one’s career as a program/policy evaluator to get me to step back and ponder what I’ve been doing these past 35 years.  Eight things came to mind, which I’ll share here, a mix of broad philosophies and specific practices.  Any of these elements that speak to readers could become part of how evaluators besides myself go about plying their trades.  That would be gratifying.  In any case, I can say that each and every one of these approaches has been a difference-maker for me.

1)   Learn something new each day from other researchers—evaluators with whom you directly collaborate and/or scholars whose contributions to the literature support your scientific investigations.

2)   Be bold with the research design and analytical solutions you try.  Put them up for scrutiny by other scientists and/or for empirical testing so that the bold ideas that don’t pan out can be eliminated and thinking can move on to others.

3)   Welcome other people’s ideas.  Work on making them better if necessary before they are applied, but assume from the start there’s a nugget of value in each one and dig in to find it.

4)   Don’t settle for less—in terms of scientific rigor of methods or clarity/policy salience of findings presentation—than the best you know you can do.  To quote my father the day he conscripted me as an adolescent to clean the family garage: “Any job worth doing is worth doing well.”

5)   Look for connections among seemingly disparate studies so that design and analysis approaches from one can trigger distinctive ideas for another.

6)    Seek to do research in multiple policy/program areas each year of your career, getting deep in particular areas with time but broad right off the bat.  You never knows what topic area will open big opportunities the year after this one.

7)   Take on as many different kinds of methodological assignments as possible—especially assignments with technical challenges you don’t know how to surmount at the outset!  Pushing yourself is the best way to make creative new contributions to the field.

8)   Multiply the number of professional acquaintances you make each year.  Learn what each one does well and when you collaborate give her or him lots of opportunities—and kudos—in those roles.  Program and policy evaluation is a team sport and leadership means playing the game cordially with other pros.

How should you prioritize among these eight areas of “investment” when you can’t do everything (and at the same time carry out the nitty gritty of actually conducting policy research)?  Each evaluator has to make that choice for himself or herself  and perhaps discover and adopt other career-advancing practices not on this list.  Good luck to all in that endeavor—in navigating the path forward as individual evaluators and thereby in strengthening the profession’s collective contribution to better public policy through better evaluation research.

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