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Rick Cummings: Looking back on a career well spent from anthropologist to evaluator

September 2020
by Anthea Rutter

Rick has been in the field of evaluation for over 40 years. He has been President of the AES and conference convenor. These days, he balances work as Emeritus Professor at Murdoch University, running a small consultancy, providing training in evaluation, chairing AES Fellows and participating in the AES Awards Committee.

As we can see from previous Fellows profiles, people come into the evaluation profession via different routes. As evaluation is a relatively small field, this means that close connections are formed between evaluators. When asked what brought Rick into evaluation, he cited Ralph Straton, one of our earliest Fellows of the AES.

Ralph convinced me that this is an area where you can contribute to the improvement of society through scientific work. He also explained that he was attracted to the idea of working on short-term projects and then moving onto the next project. I felt that everyone was talking about the importance of evaluation for the development and implementation of good public policy and felt that I could contribute to increasing the use of it.

All of our Fellows have a myriad of expertise and interests, so I was keen to find out Rick's main area of interest

I don't belong to a particular school of evaluation– utilisation is the closest. My main approach is to use a number of tools to increase the utilisation of evaluation. A strong focus is to build the relationship between the evaluators and the stakeholders as research shows this can increase use. I try to work with agencies that are helping those less able and the marginalised groups in society.

All of us meet a number of challenges we face as we develop our skills in evaluation. Challenges of course are not negative experiences and help us to hone our practice. Rick shared some common challenges.

For half of my career I found it a challenge to get the time to do evaluation as I was working in the public sector and universities. It has also been a challenge keeping up with the field as it has matured. I think a major challenge we now face is developing approaches and tools that work well in evaluating public policies not just programs.

Interestingly, I did not know that Rick was an anthropologist! Finding out that fact was an incentive to ask him what he saw as the highlights of his career.

One was going to Papua New Guinea to conduct a two-year evaluation study for the World Bank; for me this was just a dream come true. And it was a fantastic experience to see the range of cultures in person. Getting my PhD in Evaluation was also great, as it was rare to do this in Australia at the time. Becoming an AES Fellow was a great honour, considering the quality contributions made by the other Fellows. More recently I have enjoyed training aspiring evaluators through workshops and graduate courses at Murdoch and UWA [University of Western Australia]. A number of them have become formal evaluators and started their own careers.

All of us have been influenced by people during our careers and some have had greater influences than others. Citing another of our Fellows was great.

Michael Patton's work on utilisation and Carol Weiss on how evaluation works with government have been really influential. Working closely with John Owen over a number of years has been fantastic, as he always sees deeper into an issue than I do. Being able to think differently about evaluation through teaching, especially international students, has also taught me more about the need to be flexible in evaluation.

I was keen to find out from Rick how he felt the field of evaluation changed during his career. His answer reflected the growth and maturity of evaluation in Australia.

It's much more professional and is now recognised as a legitimate discipline and profession. People are now more careful how they operate as evaluators. It has a strong theory base and a number of tools have been developed: for example, program logic, Most Significant Change. Our influence has gone beyond the discipline of evaluation into the areas of policy development, decision-making and corporate cultural. In my view, in Australia, people have a much higher regard for evaluation than they did 40 years ago.

Rick provided some good insights when asked what he felt were the main skills or competencies that evaluators need to have to keep pace with emerging trends in evaluation practice.

I think that professional associations such as the AES have worked well to identify what competencies are needed. People need to be reflective and should regularly look back to see whether they are approaching the evaluation study in the correct way. You also need to get along with people and be professional in dealing with all stakeholders. We also have an ethical responsibility to address social issues cautiously and with care.

Most of our Fellows have felt there are some key issues which we should be thinking about as well as try to resolve in the next decade, and Rick was no exception.

Politically there is currently a threat to evidence-based decision making, which I feel needs to be kept as the primary model. I think evaluation is still underutilised, considering the number of public programs in operation. I think we should do more professional development in terms of longer-term training programs, not just one-off workshops. I also think there is an opportunity to work closer with universities and organisations like The Institute of Public Administration in Australia (IPPA). Although we have made inroads, we need to do it more systematically.

Rick had some sound advice to give when asked how the AES can still be relevant in the future.

I feel we need stronger involvement as an advocate - making submissions to governments at state and federal level and looking at getting involved with some of the state government evaluation agencies. The AES should also continue its extensive training role.

Rick also provided some thoughts on other areas in which the AES could concentrate.

Our priority should be to get our own region sorted and working well. There is a gap in that we lack a regional body for this part of the world. I think we need to take the lead to set it up. We are the largest, best funded and most organised society in the region. We need to put effort into working closely with New Zealand as well.
There are probably some of the Fellows who could be useful in this process. Depending upon the level of interest, how can we use those who want to do things to improve evaluation in the region?

As a final question to Rick, I asked him what he wished he had known before he started out as an evaluator.

I wish I had known how enlightening and how much fun conducting evaluation studies can be. In the beginning I felt that evaluation studies were dry, technical documents (which of course they can be but hopefully are not!). But fairly quickly I came to see that in this role, one could be paid to explore and gain an in-depth understanding of a range of really interesting and usually highly beneficial social policies and programs in areas in which you might not be an expert. And through this process you could influence government policy and practice to the benefit of many people, especially those in vulnerable situations. It has become a truly enjoyable and humbling experience, provided through evaluation, to explore and come to understand the wonderful impact people can make in other people's lives and to more fully appreciate the very positive impact government policies and programs have on the quality of life in Australia.

"I wish I had known how enlightening and how much fun conducting evaluation studies can be," muses AES Fellow Rick Cummings, as he reflects on his over-40-year evaluation journey.

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Rick Cummings is an Emeritus Professor in the Sir Walter Murdoch Graduate School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University.

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