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Introduction - Addressing Complexity: The Challenge of Evaluating Engagement

Public and community engagement initiatives take place in settings with multiple stakeholders, contextual factors that may have an unforeseen influence, and dynamic circumstances that may lead to unexpected change.

In evaluation jargon, capturing the ‘contribution’ made by your project in such a complex and fluid context, may be more realistic and more scientifically valid than looking for ‘attribution’ – aiming to definitively prove that your project led to the changes observed. Either way, useful monitoring and evaluation depends on being clear about the changes that your public engagement initiative is aiming for, so these changes can be assessed. This in turn, depends on understandings and assumptions about how change happens - the ‘theory of change’ for the engagement work being undertaken, and how your initiative contributes to these changes.

Making clear the ‘theory of change’ for your engagement activities means they can be tested against evidence of what actually happened, with the potential to learn and further improve subsequent initiatives. Some evaluation frameworks are more suited than others to addressing such complexity and it is mainly these frameworks, and their related evaluation approaches and tools, that are featured in the resources on Mesh, highlighted here.

The influence of complexity theory has grown in recent years, bringing a set of concepts and methods that have been adapted by evaluators to better address the complex multi-stakeholder nature of social initiatives, as we see in a number of the evaluation approaches outlined above.

Do you have something to add to the evaluation map? A new category? Some more resources? Suggestions for changes to make it easier to navigate? Let us know by email or post on the Methods of Evaluation - Your Input on the Mesh Evaluation Map discussion board.