Collaborative, Embedded and Creative: reflections on evaluation

On 25th October 2018 I had the pleasure of being asked to join a panel to discuss evaluation in the context of working with the arts with children and young people in challenging circumstances at the New Horizon’s Conference, hosted by The Garage in Norwich. The whole day was planned to support discussion, debate and importantly opportunities to learn.  I was joined on the panel by the inspirational Deborah Bullivant, Founder of Grimm & Co, Dr. Matthew Hill, Head of Research and Learning and Deputy Director for the Centre for Youth Impact, and our excellent panel Chair, Lucy Marder, Strategic Manager at ArtsWork.  

Here is an outline of what I talked about in the session.

How do we best evaluate the impact of work by and with children in challenging circumstances?

Good evaluation for me is underpinned by three core principles.

Firstly, good evaluation is collaborative.

Good evaluation has stakeholders at the heart of the process, not just as people to fill in forms but to help plan the methodology, set the questions that are most important to them and reach out to their networks where appropriate. Evaluation is concerned with making judgements, but we need to think carefully about who makes those judgements about what works. Our most vulnerable groups are most likely to be the least powerful, and so why would we as evaluators add to their powerlessness by assuming as the experts we have all the answers about how an evaluation would work for them. I’m not suggesting this is always easy. In one project I evaluated, we started off with a participatory action research project at the centre of the evaluation, but needed to move away from this approach to an engaged but researcher led evaluation after the first year. This was as a result of funders requiring larger samples sizes than a truly participatory evaluation could achieve, and restrictions on how much I could direct the research, let alone the community researchers. This became a quite an ethical dilemma for me. Why were we asking volunteers to give up their time to work on a well-funded project that they had very little real power to influence? Don’t get me wrong, the funders and project were very keen to help people shape the programme, and we were pragmatic in our solutions, but ultimately the systems of ‘evaluation’ got in the way of stakeholders being able to direct and genuinely influence the evaluation in any meaningful way.

Secondly, good evaluation is embedded deep into the activity of the project.

So often evaluation is thought of something that fits onto the end of a project. An afterthought. Or something that a project pulls out annually in the form of interim reports. For me good evaluation is stealthy. It isn’t an add on, but embedded throughout the whole cycle of planning, listening and learning, analysing and sharing. It is about evaluation activities being immersed in the day to day activity. In my experience artists are some of the best people to run effective evaluations because artists don’t do boring. And once given permission to throw away their evaluation forms they go to town using creative activities to help stakeholders reflect on impact in exciting and engaging way. Which bring me to my last principle.

Good evaluation is creative and engaging.

Who says an evaluation has to be a long list of questions asked at the end of a session? Who says an evaluation has to be written up by an evaluator into a report that gathers dust on a shelf for 5 years until the next office move when it is thrown in the bin? In my experience using creative evaluation tools can help attract people to tell you their thoughts. In creative projects we have limitless ways of both gathering and disseminating our evaluation findings. And quite often the people best able to decide what that should be are those I talked about in principle number 1.

I think it is important to note that we can’t beat ourselves up over this if we can’t always achieve this balance. In some cases, as is illustrated in the examples I have just mentioned, I took the decision to focus more on creative engagement than full participation of community researchers. At other times I have been asked to evaluate projects three months before it is due to end. And that is ok. I’m also not denying the importance of data and clear and consistent evaluation frameworks. But these three principle help us reflect on work: Whose voice are we hearing? How well does evaluation fit with inside the project itself? And will our evaluation be a passive observation of practice or play a part in deliberately addressing some of the power inequalities experienced by the young people we work with?

Getting Involved in Arts and Culture: People with learning disabilities and their access to mainstream arts and culture

In 2017, Reach members got involved in Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to be City of Culture 2021. Staffordshire University worked with Reach, an advocacy group for people with learning disabilities, supported by Asist, to train 10 peer researchers to help understand the barriers for people with learning disabilities when accessing mainstream arts and culture. In total they gathered feedback from 82 people with learning disabilities from across Stoke-on-Trent.

We have produced two reports about our research, one official report and an easy read version.  Click on the pictures below to read the reports.

To find out more about the participatory research process take a look at my Sway which outlines the research and the impact of working with Reach members as Peer Researchers. 


Stoke-on-Trent – “Falling back in love with itself”

As the dust settles on last year and we enter into 2018, I reflect on how the energy surrounding Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to be City of Culture 2021 has last well into the new year.

The few weeks before Christmas 2017 were somewhat of a rollercoaster.  Stoke-on-Trent had submitted their second phase bid to be City of Culture 2021 and the belief that Stoke-on-Trent could actually be the winners of the title had grown steadily and reached fever pitch by 7th December, the date of the announcement.

In my role as Lead for Cultural and Community Engagement at Staffordshire University I was responsible for maximising the social impact of Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to be City of Culture.  I worked with hundreds of organisations and professions and had grown a network of local people who live, work or study in Stoke-on-Trent to form a Community Advisory Network (SoTogether CAN).  As key partners in the bidding process, and given my role in getting local people involved in the bid, it was only fitting that Staffordshire University hosted the celebration event on the night of the announcement.

We invited people who had been involved in the bidding process, whether they were artists, business leaders, local residents or students, to brave the rain and come to watch the announcement and celebrate the outcome together, whatever it may be.  Pilgrim’s Pit provided music and gave the whole event a carnival feel.  Local poet, Gabby Gay MC’d the night for us and we invited members of the City of Culture panel, Liz Barnes, Staffordshire University’s VC and local community members to talk about the impact of bidding on them and the city.  Over 100 people came to be part of the evening, to share their excitement and their hopes.  

As 7.30pm approached, the time of the announcement on BBC 1’s the One Show, the nerves in the room were palpable.  We gathered around the big screen and without prompting the room fell silent.  And then the news of the winning city came. Coventry.

That moment will stay with me for a long time.  The room was full of people who had been on an extraordinary journey that led us to this moment, where we all believed that it was possible.  We were a different city than when we first decided to bid.  We had new connections, relationships, friendships.  We had tested out new ideas and dreamed big dreams. The excitement that had filled the room minutes before had plummeted.  There were some tears and lots of disappointment.

I had prepared two speeches to close the event and as it turned out the one I read was the one I had found hardest to write.  And it really was the hardest speech I have ever given because I too had been on the journey and had encouraged others to come on it with me. So I spoke from the heart. Here is an abridged version.

We are used to hearing how Stoke-on-Trent is not the city it used to be.  Well, I’ve got news for you.  Stoke-on-Trent is not the city it used to be.   
Just over two years ago we had a wild idea and from there we decided to bid to be City of Culture in 2021.  Some people laughed, some people scoffed, but all over our city small glimmers of interest and hope were sparked.   
In the last two years, creative industries have started to believe that Stoke-on-Trent is a place their businesses can thrive and prosper.  
Artist have started to believe that the connections they can make in Stoke-on-Trent will not only benefit their practice but also that of other artists, as well as fire the imaginations of local people.  
Business leaders have started to believe in the power of culture to regenerate a city and boost the economy.  
Young people have started to believe that Stoke-on-Trent could be a place to stay, to work and to raise a family.  
Teachers from across the city have united in their belief that creativity is essential to the health, wellbeing and intellectual development of our children. 
Residents have believed that they can make a difference, they can have a say in what the future of Stoke-on-Trent looks like. 
Our two universities have believed in the power of partnership in creating knowledge and influencing change together.  
But most of all we all believed it could have been Stoke-on-Trent’s name called out tonight.  We all believe we are a city of culture.  We believe in Stoke-on-Trent.  We believe in each other.  
We are, of course, disappointed that we didn’t win the title tonight.  We have all worked so hard and invested so much of ourselves in this process.  When you have a bid with so much heart, it is hard not to feel hurt when it doesn’t quite work out.  So let’s feel our disappointment and our hurt. But not for too long.  Instead let’s think about what we have achieved.  
Stoke-on-Trent isn’t the city it used to be.  It is transformed.   
We have a brand new cultural strategy for the city that is to be launched in the new year.  We have cultural forum of committed artists and a newly formed partnership between Keele and Staffordshire Universities with a commitment to develop the Cultural Observatory which will help us measure our city’s cultural impact.  We have a committed SoTogether CAN group, a group of local people who will be embedded into the delivery of both the cultural observatory and cultural strategy.   
But most of all we have a new belief in our city.  A confidence and a pride.  We should all be proud of what we have achieved in Stoke-on-Trent over the last few years and proud of what we can still achieve.  So don’t stop now.  We might not have a title, but don’t let that define us.  What we have are new partnerships, new structures, new relationships, new belief in the power of Stoke-on-Trent.  There is no going back from here. 
So, let’s come back together in the New Year to say thank you and celebrate.  We will  take all our energy and plan our new steps together to build the future we now believe is possible. Further information will be sent out soon, although first I may need to sleep.  
Stoke-on-Trent is not the city it used to be.  And I for one and really proud of that.

I truly believe those words.  We are transformed and we are still transforming.  Yes, we may have a long way to go, but the difference is there is a new willingness to do it together.  The energy and momentum generated through the process of bidding to be City of Culture was evident on that night in December and also at the event held this week at B Arts.  As promised we invited everyone back together to celebrate and plan our next cultural steps as a city.  I had expected a Christmas break and a New Year would mean that some people had moved their attentions elsewhere.  But no.  The room was again filled with energetic, passionate and creative Stokies making plans for a better future.  Still dreaming big dreams and forging new connections to make new things happen.  The momentum is still gathering.   And that momentum far outweighs the pain of hearing a different city’s name being called out on a rainy evening in December.