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The Eye of the Beholder - Multiple Perspectives

A system can be viewed from many different perspectives. Almost everyone is familiar with the famous drawing from the psychology of perception that shows either faces or a vase depending on how you look at it. When you stare at this picture you can actually experience the shift in perspective that psychologists have described as the "figure-ground" effect. The same system can seem very different when looked at from different viewpoints. We cannot really understand the system and its interdependencies unless we look at it from multiple points of view.

The issue of multiple perspectives is essential in evaluation for a number of reasons (depending on your perspective!). For instance, all program evaluations involve a multiplicity of stakeholders including the participants, program developers, administrators, support staff, families and community, funders, policymakers, politicians, and the general public. One of the most important things an evaluator can do is to help the different stakeholders see the system of a program from the perspectives of other stakeholders. For instance, program deliverers may not perceive why they are being pressured to evaluate their programs "from an outside perspective" or why they need to demonstrate outcomes and impacts. If they understand the system pressures on different stakeholders, in this case the funders, they may gain a greater appreciation of how their view fits into the larger system. Conversely, funders may not understand why the organizations they fund are resisting their calls for evaluation. If they can begin to view the program through the eyes of those who deliver it or participate in it they are likely to understand the system better. In this example it's easy to see that the issue of perspective is intimately related to the motivations and incentives of different stakeholders. The field of evaluation has long emphasized the values of participatory evaluation approaches, in part because of this critical importance of multiple perspectives.

But multiple perspectives are also critical for understanding the content and meaning of programs. Throughout an evaluation it is valuable to have key stakeholders look at different parts of the program, to share their views, and to consider how others might perceive them. For instance, it is surprising how many times even in simple programs different people will have remarkably different views of what they are trying to do or what the program is affecting. We find that when people share their perspectives they can uncover such differences and that this learning is critical for informing the evaluation.