Tips for commissioning an external evaluation

15 November 2019

Two businesspeople discussing paperwork while sitting in an office

This short article is for anyone who is planning to commission an evaluation from an external evaluator.


Commissioning an external evaluation is a good option if evaluation expertise is not available within your organisation or you do not have the time to do an internal evaluation. An external evaluation is useful as it can provide an independent assessment process for your organisation’s work or program.

A good external evaluation can provide:

  • expert knowledge and the capacity to evaluate your project while you deliver it
  • a rigorous evidence base that can be used to apply for and retain program funding
  • a valuable reflection exercise to enhance your program learning, development and delivery
  • effective communication of your program achievements
  • practical recommendations for the future.

The tips below will help you to get the most from an external evaluation and avoid common pitfalls when engaging an external evaluator. You may also find some of these tips helpful if you are planning to do an evaluation yourself.

1. Be clear on your what, who and how

It’s important to plan carefully when commissioning an evaluation. Be clear on what you want the evaluation to do, who needs to be involved and how to procure evaluation services in your organisation. If you can answer these questions you are more likely to have a smooth experience in engaging with an evaluator and, most importantly, get a useful product at the end.

 This table describes the what, who and how of your evaluation.
What Who How

What do you want the evaluation to do?

  • Can you describe the objectives of your program?
  • You may want to try writing a program logic.

How will the findings of this evaluation be useful and how do you intend to use them?

(You want your evaluation to work for you.)

This helps identify:

  • the key questions you want answered
  • the methods the evaluator might use to capture this
  • the most useful way to communicate the evaluation results.

Who has overall responsibility for managing your evaluation?

Who needs to be involved?

Knowing this helps with:

  • tracking the evaluation’s progress
  • responding to any issues that emerge
  • working with the findings from the evaluation.

How do you involve people in your organisation in the evaluation?

You can, for example:

  • establish an evaluation steering group
  • have a project sponsor in management
  • have regular meetings or communications with your executive or interested staff.

How does your organisation procure external services?

  • You don’t want to reinvent the wheel if there are already guidelines or processes to help you to engage an evaluator.

Are there rules that need to be followed?

  • Sometimes funders have strict requirements for evaluations of the programs they run.
  • It is important that you are clear about these requirements so you can make sure your evaluator can meet them.
  • One example of these types of requirements can be found here.

2. Know your budget

It is a good idea to be clear about your budget when you approach potential evaluators so they can tailor a response to what you can afford.

3. Outline your selection process and check references

There are a number of different ways to advertise for and select an evaluator. These methods of engaging an evaluator are often based on the type and cost of the work.

You can find a more detailed resource on evaluation procurement and selection here.

Developing selection criteria for each proposal can help you select an evaluator. A good example of criteria can be found here.

Checking your evaluator’s references will give you an idea of how they work with their clients. It can also be a good idea to ask to see examples of other reports or work the evaluator has competed, so you can assess how well their approach aligns with your needs.

4. Set clear expectations and communicate early and often

Clear communication with your chosen evaluators from the start will help ensure you get an evaluation that is useful to you. This starts at the commissioning phase when you set out your expectations. We recommend setting up a process where you talk to each other regularly. Nothing in the final evaluation report should be a surprise to you if you are getting regular updates along the way.

5. Think about how you want to work with your evaluator

Evaluators can work with you in many different ways. Do you want them to work alongside you or completely independently? Consider how you would like your evaluator to communicate with you. Do you require formal written updates?

6. Have a discussion about methods, data collection and design

Do you have an evaluation method in mind? Think about any reporting requirements you might have. Or you may want the evaluator to choose and apply the method that they think is best. Think about whether you have existing data they can use. Would you like to be involved in data collection? Answering these questions will help the evaluator design the most appropriate evaluation approach.

7. Set clear timelines

Be clear on what your evaluation timeline is. This helps ensure your evaluator meets your organisation’s or your funder’s timing requirements.

8. Consider your final products and deliverables

How do you want the final evaluation product presented? Having a communication strategy and presentation of findings can support buy-in from other stakeholders – especially if you decide to implement changes to improve your program as a result of the evaluation. Most people want a report with recommendations and key findings but get creative! You know your audience best. Do you want, for example, a video resource or webinar, a PowerPoint or email newsletter? There are many different ways to communicate findings. It is also worth considering how you would like to communicate your findings to your participants and other stakeholders. What would they like to know about the findings?

Additional resources

References

  • Centre for Epidemiology and Evidence. ( 2017). Commissioning evaluation services: A Guide. Evidence and Evaluation Guidance Series, Population and Public Health Division. Sydney: NSW Ministry of Health. Retrieved from www.health.nsw.gov.au/research/Pages/evaluation-guide.aspx
  • McNeish & Scott: DMSS Consulting UK. (2016). Project evaluation a practical guide: Part three. Commissioning an independent evaluation. Retrieved from www.dmss.co.uk/evaluation
  • Owen, J. M., & Rogers, P. (1999). Program evaluation: Forms and approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • The Sax Institute, Huckel-Schneider (2015) Six top tips for commissioning evaluations. Retrieved from www.saxinstitute.org.au/news/six-top-tips-for-commissioning-evaluations/
  • US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). Evaluation resources. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/eval/resources/index.htm

Featured image: © GettyImages/gradyreese

Author

Eleanor Kerdo

Eleanor is a Senior Researcher who started with AIFs in 2019. Eleanor has an expertise in person and family centred participatory evaluation and consultation and has a background in health policy. Eleanor has worked in community health, advocacy and consumer consultation and social research.
Eleanor Kerdo

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