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The power of a good conference: from methodology wars to meaningful conversations

By Jade Maloney

There’s still a chill in the air, but the days are starting to lengthen, and you can sense the promise of spring. Must nearly be time for another AES conference.

I remember my first one: Canberra, 2009. I was still ‘green’, 18 months after falling out of publishing and into a role in evaluation. Andrew Leigh had just come out with his proposal for a hierarchy of evidence to inform Australian policy making, and there was an afternoon panel, including Leigh himself, to discuss it. The proposal in itself was nothing new (it drew on models from medical research in the US and social policy in the UK), but it added fuel to the still burning embers of the fire that was (is?) the methodology wars.

I didn’t yet know enough to unpack the arguments for and against the primacy of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), but I couldn’t help thinking that there must be a more nuanced question and answer than the heated audience commentary suggested.

Fast forward to Canberra 2017. I’ve now got my own views about the kinds of questions that RCTs can and cannot answer, and I nearly choke on my chicken as economist Nicholas Gruen says RCTs are not the panacea they’re made out to be. We need to ask the right questions at the right times and choose appropriate methods to answer them. I agree.

The purpose of this trip down memory lane is not to ignite a methodological debate. It’s to say that the conference is a window into what matters to evaluation at the time. It seems to me that the discussion has also matured and that meaningful conversations at the conference – including candid discussions about failures – have an important role in developing the discipline. (I suppose discipline is the right term since we’re not technically a ‘profession’ – although the pathways to professionalisation project will lead us there).

So I’m excited about how the interactive sessions planned for Launceston 2018 will help us reflect on how we are transforming evaluation and what comes next.

As someone who spans the roles of design, implementation and evaluation, I’ll be jumping into sessions on design and discussions about what the rise of co-design means for the evaluator role and required competencies.

As someone who works in disability policy and has lived experience of mental health issues, I’m also keen to find out about how others are implementing participatory and empowerment approaches in practice, like Joanna Farmer’s session on the challenges of managing values and power in evaluating with a lived experience.

And as conference co-convener for Sydney 2019, I’m keen to hear from other AES members what they love about the conference and what else might be possible. Because, after all, while keynotes and panellists can strike the match, only the participants can carry the torch through conversations.

Jade is a partner at ARTD Consultants.

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