What difference did your engagement project make? What was its value? Can you answer the ‘so what’ question? Evaluation can help you measure the impact of your work, but it can also contribute so much more.
Evaluation as part of planning
If you have thought hard about your purpose, and engaged with the different people you want to involve in an effective way, the ‘so what’ question should be relatively easy to answer. You would expect to have achieved your purpose, and you would expect the people involved to have benefitted in ways they wanted to.
However, how do you know, and are there techniques you can use to maximise the potential value realised by your project?
Evaluation is critical here. Quality engagement involves the strategic use of evaluation. You need to consider how to use evaluation to inform what you do, to pilot approaches, to explore what works well and less well, and to capture whether you achieved what you set out to achieve.
Therefore people who run high quality engagement projects think about the use of evaluation right at the start of their planning, not as an afterthought. They also think hard about the aims of the evaluation, the approach they take, the methods utilised, and how the data will be analysed and used. If this feels unfamiliar territory, please check out our practical guides to evaluation, and how to plan an approach.
Types of evaluation
Currently many researchers are particularly keen to evaluate the impact of their activities. This is important if you are planning to submit a Research Excellence Framework (REF) case study. Here the goal is 'summative' evaluation – capturing the outcomes realised by the activity. However 'formative' evaluation is important too as it helps you ensure that your approach is as effective as possible.
Clearly value extends beyond REF-able impact. It includes the value that the partner’s gain, that the delivery team gain, and the participants gain. For some forms of engagement, there is an impact on the research. The sooner you begin to think about these things, the more likely it is that you, your team, and your partners will be able to agree what matters to them, and if and how the project might develop. It ensures that you are able to develop a strategic approach to your evaluation that helps you create appropriate approaches, and assess their value to all involved.