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Driving With Your Eyes Open - Feedback

In dynamic living systems different parts of the system continually interact with and influence each other over time. An essential aspect of this involves the role of feedback. If we didn't have feedback we simply would not be able to function as living beings. Imagine trying to drive a car down the road without being able to see anything or hear anything, without the basic sense mechanisms that provide information about what we are experiencing. That's essentially what feedback means, and it is an essential concept in systems thinking.

At a macro level you might think of evaluation itself as a feedback mechanism for our society. Without evaluation we are "driving blind" in trying to operate our programs (an unfortunate state of affairs that occurs far too often). In addition, without feedback, learning will not occur. While an individual program evaluation can tell us something useful about a program, multiple evaluations of many similar programs over time can provide us with the cumulative feedback needed to begin making sense of what works - but only if we have systems for accumulating and synthesizing the individual evaluations.

The idea of feedback is also critical within the evaluation of a program. We gather input from multiple participants, to get their feedback about what they think the program is and what it is trying to do. We feed back the results of an evaluation so that others can see what is happening and learn from it. Feedback is essential even throughout the process of conducting the evaluation. When we are collecting data, we monitor whether we are getting adequate responses and how respondents and others in the organization are reacting to the process.

So, feedback is everywhere in an evaluation. One of the purposes of systems evaluation is to encourage us to become more conscious of the informal feedback that is already occurring and to make it more coherent and structured so that it can function even more effectively and we don't drive off the road.