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The 'Local' and the 'Global' - Scale

In systems thinking we are always dealing with hierarchies of part-whole relationships.
For instance, activities are parts of programs which are parts of collections of programs in an organization which may exist in a system of many similar organizations. When we think or talk about different levels of this kind of hierarchy we are operating at different levels of scale in the system. Physical part-whole hierarchies can exist from the subatomic level to the scale of the universe as a whole. Conceptual hierarchies can exist from the most general level (programs in general) to the most specific subcategory (the summer science youth camp in Ithaca, New York).

We can look at any system from many different viewpoints. For instance, if we are looking at an organization with multiple programs, each program can be viewed as a "part" in the system that constitutes the organization. When we talk about the relationship between a program and its organization, we can think of the program as "local" and the organization as "global" in relation to each other because they are at different but related levels in the hierarchy. On the other hand, when we compare or contrast two programs within an organization we can think of that as a "local-local" relationship because both are at the same level of scale in the hierarchy. If we shift our perspective to a higher level of scale, we are also shifting what we consider "local" and "global". For instance if we think about an organization as one part in a larger system of similar organizations (e.g., a county office in a state-wide system of such offices), then the organization becomes "local" to the system's "global". When we compare two county level offices, we are looking at a "local-local" relationship. When we look at the county level office in relation to the state office we have a "local-global" relationship because we are looking across different levels of scale.

Why are the ideas of scale and of local and global relationships important in evaluation? Different parts of a system don't exist in isolation. If we don't take them into consideration throughout our evaluation efforts we can run into significant problems that can jeopardize the whole endeavor. For instance, very often something in one part of a system may be in conflict with something in another part of a system. A program activity may conflict or compete with the activity of another program (a local - local relationship in a system) or with an organizational policy or effort (a local - global relationship). Or the expectations that stakeholders at one level of scale have for an evaluation may be very different than those of stakeholders at a different level of scale. Funders may expect that the evaluation will focus on accountability and impact while program implementers may be more interested in how evaluation can contribute more immediate feedback that can be used to improve programs. Evaluation should address both perspectives, and the process of evaluation can assist stakeholders to appreciate the complexity of the system.