One thing they don’t teach you in graduate school is how to explain what you do as a program evaluator. I still sometimes stumble on the best way to describe my job. Take last weekend, for example, when I ran into an old friend:
“Hi! It’s so nice to see you, Vanessa. So what are you doing for work these days?”
“I’m a Public Health Program Evaluator.”
“Oh. Wow. That’s so interesting…what does that mean, exactly?”
“Um, I uh…well, we collect data about health programs, and then, uh…”
This is, verbatim, the conversation I had, though I have had a countless number of similar conversations in the past. Inevitably, my friend’s eyes glaze over the instant the word “data” escapes my mouth. I finally realized that for a person whose job it is to make information understandable for others, I should be able to do the same to actually describe my job!
So what is a program evaluator, anyway?
Wisegeek.com is a website that seeks to “provide short, clear and concise answers to common questions.” Their definition of a program evaluator is “a person who collects data and other information to analyze, rate and generally answer questions regarding specific projects, policies and programs offered by organizations, government agencies and businesses.” While this is an accurate definition of a program evaluator, I think we can put it in even simpler terms. So here is my attempt:
“As a program evaluator, I help people determine which parts of their program work best, and which parts can be improved.”
Short and sweet and gets to the point. Of course the work of an evaluator is more complex than this brief explanation conveys, as evaluators work beyond these parameters to determine the extent to which programs are effective, efficient, and accountable.
I also made sure that my definition could be applied to many different types of evaluators, whether you are an internal or external evaluator, working on a large- or small-scale evaluation, or using qualitative or quantitative data. It also applies to many different areas of evaluation, such as public health, education, or the arts.
What is your response when people ask you what a program evaluator is? Or alternatively, if you’re the friend or loved one of an evaluator seeking to understand what evaluation is, does this explanation make sense to you? We’d love to hear your thoughts!