Evaluations, assessments, and audits in public administration provide a unique and heavily relied upon service to their clients – a facts-based report regarding the goals and objectives of the program, agency, or policy. Because these evaluators operate in the public sphere, they have an additional task of keeping the public interest in mind when carrying out their evaluation. It is for this reason alone, anyone conducting an evaluation, audit, or assessment has a duty to remain neutral when at all possible. But, seeing as people have a difficult time remaining neutral, one must ask themselves: What are the advantages and disadvantages of evaluators acting as advocates? Additionally, what circumstances might it be appropriate for an evaluator to act as an advocate?
If “the ultimate bases for ethics” is the community, altruism, and increasing the welfare of individuals, as some such as Dr. Richard Paula and Dr. Linda Elder in The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the foundations of Ethical Reasoning, then the job of the evaluator is embodied in the ethics (pg. 4). In fact, the main concern of any responsible evaluator is the public interest and they should, whenever possible, seek to achieve “public objectives while observing appropriate procedures within a democracic society” (Emison, 2007, pg 14). In this same way, evaluators fill in a much needed void in a democratic society, which is to report on and advise appropriate decision making regarding market failures, problems in the bureaucracy, injustice, and unfairness. Evaluation has been described as a “complex mosaic” and even “too complex for researchers to ever completely comprehend” that invokes change to “better the human condition” (Rossi, et al., 2004, p.10)(Langham, 2012, p 35). So, if honest and fact-based evaluations are so integral to democratic society, what is there to be said regarding non-neutral or advocate evaluators?
Much has been written on human nature from Hume to Darwin to Simon, it has been settled that human beings inherently cannot make rational decisions flawlessly all the time. Herbert Simon in Administrative Behavior brought the concept into public administration noting that people are rationally bounded by what they know, their skillset, the resources and influences available to them, and their personal values (Simon, 1997). Simon explained that people are especially vulnerable when indulging in their own passions and values noting that, “when emotion is strong, the focus of attention may be narrowed to a very specific, adn perhaps transient goal, and we may ignore important matters” (Simon, 1997, p. 91). In short, the disadvantages of being an advocate evaluator is large indeed considering the consequences. For one, advocating for a client or cause can undermine the resulting changes that could have been made to best serve the public interest. Secondly, reporting would not be as honest or reflective of the actual problem at hand, and would instead be biased toward the client or client interest. And lastly, the ethics of unbiased reporting that evaluators find themselves enveloped in is tarnished lessening the reporting and the job of the evaluator.
There are some benefits to being an advocate, however, if the benefits are worth the disadvantages listed above would be a considerably difficult case to make. The neutral evaluator is focused on performing seamlessly with an ethical conduct, but the advocate can wield this position and power to favor political gain and benefit a purpose or interest. Emison (2007) notes that “evaluations can be used as weapons to find fault with how a program is being conducted and thereby gain political advantage” – he continues to explain that “many things beyond scientific quality matter in whether an evaluation’s recommendations get implemented”, including advocating or collaborating with the client (p. 5).
Another benefit would be the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the clients and major stakeholders. The argument could be made that by advocating and understanding the client and their true concerns, goals, and objectives, the evaluator can better report on the program and implement the best recommendations possible – assuming this collaboration does not taint the evaluator’s opinion or work. Someone asserting this argument may even point to the fact that no one can truly be without bias as they are bounded rationality, so the evaluator may as well gain some benefit from it. Additionally, there may be many hidden agendas and interests behind a request for an evaluation and knowing these deeper reasons could benefit the outcome of the evaluation (Rossi, et al., 2004, p. 37).
In short, the circumstances that would be appropriate for advocacy are definitely the ones that require a deeper and more personal probe into the stakeholders and clients. Evaluators are professionals and honor the public interest concern and thus seek to always behave ethically. If one can balance the advocacy position while still reporting unbiasedly, they would gain much needed information by gathering more knowledge, discover the goals, objectives, adn hidden agendas of clients, stakeholders, and the like and fulfil their duty as evaluators with the public in mind. However, as noted above, it is debatable if any person can truly be an advocate without limiting their ability to perform the task honestly and completely
Emison, G.A. (2007). Practical program evaluations: Getting from ideas to outcomes. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Langbein, L. (2015). Public program evaluation: A statistical guide (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.
Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). The thinker’s guide to understanding the foundations of ethical reasoning: Based on critical thinking concepts and tools (2nd ed.) Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Rossi, P.H., Lipsey, M.W., & Freeman, H.E. (2004). Evaluation: A systematic approach (7th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Simon, H.A. (1997). Administrative behavior: A study of decision-making processes in administrative organizations (4th ed). New York, NY: Free Press.
Featured image: Manius Curius Dentatus refusing the Bribes of the Samnites – Johann Georg Platzer (1704-1761)