Evaluation and Social Work: Are they really the same thing?

When you think of a social worker, what do you typically think of?  The stereotypical image is often a state worker who takes people’s children away. Or the suffering non-profit worker who is drowning under a massive caseload and limited funding. Both of these can be true. But social work is so much more.

As a social worker who does evaluation, I strongly believe in the contribution that the field of social work can make to evaluation.  Because of this, I am starting a series of posts about how social work and evaluation are great partners.  This first post focuses on the similarities between social work and evaluation. Future posts in this series will focus on specific skills that social workers are trained in that enhance evaluation practice.

When people list the academic and professional fields that feed into the field of evaluation, social work is often left off of that list.  People often don’t think of social workers as evaluators because of misconceptions about the field of social work.

The National Association of Social Workers defines a social worker as someone who…

“helps people increase their capacities for problem solving and coping, and they help them obtain needed resources, facilitate interactions between individuals and between people and their environments, make organizations responsible to people, and influence social policies.”

Does this sound familiar? Yes, much of this definition applies to the direct service work that many social workers do. But, evaluators do much of the same work.

Let’s break it down.

 

Help clients increase their capacities for problem solving.

Evaluators work with clients to solve problems all the time. Evaluators use data to help clients with decision making (or problem solving).  In addition, evaluation capacity building teaches clients use evaluation results and conduct evaluations themselves to make decisions and solve problems.

Help clients obtain needed resources.

Evaluation helps clients obtain resources.  Most prominently, evaluation results can be key to obtaining additional funding for programming.  But also, evaluation results help to inform program, organizational, or policy improvement.  This improvement helps clients obtain more “resources” in terms of better understanding their population, their programming, barriers and facilitators, their impact, and areas for improvement.  This understanding is a resource for clients, because without it, they will not continue to grow and develop.

Facilitate interactions between individuals and between people and their environment.

This one can have multiple levels.

  1. Very simply, evaluators facilitate meetings and interactions all the time. Evaluators must have facilitation skills to build rapport with clients, understand clients’ needs, collect data, report data, and disseminate results. Evaluators are constantly using facilitation skills throughout all phases of the evaluation process.
  2. Evaluators facilitate interactions between clients and their environments. By working to determine impact and/or areas for improvement, evaluators facilitate easier interactions for clients to work with their populations, their stakeholders, their communities, and so on.

Make organizations responsible to people.

Evaluation ensures that programs, organizations, and policies are serving their populations to the best of their ability.  Evaluators ensure that organizations are providing high quality services and that policies meet the needs of the population.

Influence social policies.

Policy evaluation “systematically investigates the effectiveness of policy interventions, implementation and processes, and to determine their merit, worth, or value in terms of improving the social and economic conditions of different stakeholders.”  This evaluation directly informs social policy at all levels.

 

So now that we have compared, I’d like to propose one possible definition for evaluation:

An evaluator is someone who “helps organizations increase their capacities for problem solving, and they help them obtain needed resources, facilitate interactions between clients and between organizations and their environments, make organizations responsible to people, and influence social policies.”

So you see, social work and evaluation can actually go hand-in-hand.

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