In the last several years, the field of evaluation has begun to pay more attention to the visual quality of the reports we produce. Spurred by Stephanie Evergreen, Ann Emery, Kylie Hutchinson, Chris Lysy, and others, evaluators have come to realize that their work must have high-quality presentation value in order to be understood and used. While much work remains to be done, the visual quality of reports that many evaluators produce is so much better than it was even a few years ago. Now that evaluation is recognizing that high-quality reports are essential if we have any hope of our work being used, what is the next step?
My proposal: Make reporting a verb again
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: you work for weeks on a report, doing meticulous analyses, producing flawless graphs, editing every word, and find out that your report was never read. Yeah, I’ve been there too. Perhaps this is a good moment for some self reflection for those of us producing these reports. Maybe people don’t want to read our 150-page PDF reports. The evidence certainly points in this direction.
Maybe people don’t want to read our 150-page PDF reports
Evaluators too often conduct work with the assumption that the report is the product that we sell. That’s not true. What we offer are insights to improve programs. Reports are a means to this end, not the end in and of themselves. Put in terms that evaluators will understand, reports are outputs, not outcomes.
Here’s a logic model showing how evaluation generally works. Note that reporting is an output that leads to outcomes.
So, if we are able to keep in mind that the outcomes of evaluation — increased understanding of program strengths and challenges and, ultimately improved program quality — can be achieved with a variety of reporting strategies, perhaps we can be inspired to think beyond the report-as-a-noun.
So, instead of thinking of reports as a noun, think of reporting as a verb
Instead of simply assuming that a report will be the deliverable, let’s push ourselves, and our clients, to understand that the desired outcome — improved programs that make a difference in the lives of people — can often be achieved through multiple types of creative reporting. Just as we encourage our clients to define their desired outcomes, so too should we begin by thinking about our goals — and only then develop reporting strategies to achieve them.
Reports are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.
I’m not the first to make this argument. In different ways, all of the folks above have made it as well. Chris Lysy has been arguing for ongoing dissemination of findings, in creative ways, that happens throughout the evaluation process. Kylie Hutchinson’s new book has a slate of ideas for thinking creatively about reporting, including dashboards, infographics, policy briefs, and more.
But old habits die hard, and this one is no different. What, then, will it take for us to use reporting strategies that truly help us to achieve our desired outcomes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.