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The Capture of Evaluations by Politics

- Dr Takunda Chirau, Monitoring & Evaluation Technical Specialist

In recent times, the word capture has become very common within the South Africa political economy. I borrow the term ‘capture’ for the sole purpose of depicting how South African politicians and or any other commissioners of evaluation capture evaluations. I borrow the theoretical explanation of ‘capture’ from Sutch (2015:2) who defines capture as a ‘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’. It is of particular importance that whenever evaluations are commissioned, politics and evaluations cannot be treated as separate entities. One of the think tanks, Hay defined politics as “a process for holding to account those charged with responsibility for collective decision-making in the community decision-making in the community”. I understand politics as a channel through which various stakeholders (including politicians) use their power to affect the process and outcomes of evaluation according to their own schemas. In most cases, these schemas are “not ideas, but, material and ideal interest, directly governing men’s conduct”. While evaluation in its simplest form entails determining the relevance and fulfillment of objectives, development efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability of a project, programme or policy (Public Service Commission 2008:3). As an emerging evaluator, I have realised how the capture of evaluation(s) contribute to the continued suffering of masses. Evaluation knowledge is romanticised by political office bearers or stakeholder involved to represent the ‘unpresentable’ and ultimately those supposed to benefit from policies, programmes, and projects continue to be tormented.

Politics and Evaluation: The Nexus

Without due cognizance, politics can ruin evaluation efforts particularly providing reliable information. Hendrick (1988) rightfully claim 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 of the government evaluation results are romanticised to portray a good impression, not representative of the ‘real happenings’. Hence a litany of policies and decisions are not informed by the evaluation knowledge but rather the ideologies of politicians and organisations commissioning evaluations. I am highly inclined to the notion that ‘as evaluators’ we have a reasonable degree of authority and autonomy, nonetheless these are blinded by political appointees, stakeholders, and any other interested party. Given such context, evaluator’s ethics (or preserving the values in face of politics) are pressurized by parties of different interests (particularly on the various types of outcomes). This speaks to predetermined results of evaluations, although loosely documented; this is done imperceptibly through suggestions (often representing the interests of that party). I have always asked and I will perpetually ask myself and yourself ‘is there a value-free evaluation’ where there are no interferences?.  Evaluation(s) to a larger extent take place in a political cosmos where values, beliefs, and ideologies are always in conflict.  While at the same time politics play a significant role, once there is political buy-in it guaranteed that the evaluation knowledge is used for whatever reason.  In most cases, for utilisation to happen, the evaluation quality would have been sacrificed. I echo the words of Datta who describes politics as ‘a bad master but a good friend’. Certainly, I am of the view that politicking has an influence on any evaluation, denying that ‘fact’ would not only be naïve but perilously idealistic. As an evaluator and probably like any another evaluator I long to see a world of evaluation where politics will ease to determine the utilisation of evidence elicited from evaluation of policies, programs, and projects.

Reversing the Capture of Evaluations

Now that we know politics as contaminating evaluation(s), what should we do to make sure that the knowledge produced remains credible? For years now, different prescriptions have been given to contain political contamination of evaluation knowledge. Banner et al (1975), Palumbo (1987), Hedrick (1988) and Turpin (1989) independently have a litany of recommendations (i.e. reference group, continuously communicate with the stakeholders and stipulate the full scope of the evaluation to be undertaken). All these are tools in the hands of evaluators, practically, I have used a number of these recommendations and disturbingly politics supplant everything. It is therefore apparent that the capture of evaluation has to a great degree infiltrated into the evaluations. It is also apparent that politics has become institutionalised within the evaluation terrain and de-institutionalising capture of evaluation from politics will remain a mission impossible. I reiterate ‘a mission impossible’ because evaluation knowledge always feeds into the public policy and most of the public policies is politically informed. I have no doubt that a number of policies in South Africa are outdated, their relevance to democratic South Africa is questionable. Evaluations have wiped their utility but politics still maintain them as relevant. Politics continue to pollute evaluation knowledge, what has gone wrong then? How do we move forward, what are your thoughts? Reversing the capture of evaluations within South Africa remains a priority but also I am inclined to state that it is extremely difficult to wipe away political influence in evaluations.