Independent evaluation and audit is a cornerstone of Norwegian democracy, from the high-profile reports of the Office of the Auditor General to the myriad of evaluation processes organized within ministries, directorates and civil society organizations. This system builds upon the fundamental principles of transparency and accountability, which hold that citizens should be able to see that state funds are spent in the best possible way. Yet a growing research literature shows that evaluation is currently practiced in ways that may have unfortunate side-effects, because it shifts our focus towards that which is possible to measure and visualize. The image we gain from evaluations may thus impact upon how we understand and govern society. This means that evaluation reports not only describe society, they may over time also contribute to change that which is being evaluated.
This dilemma serves as the starting point for the research project EvaluNation, which asks: How do new evaluation methods - what we may term the "optics of evaluation" - contribute to change our nation's understanding of what is valuable and important? To answer this fundamental question, the research project is organized into four work packages: (1) The history of evaluation optics in Norway; (2) Present day evaluation practices; (3) The future of digital evaluation; and (4) Alternative optics of evaluation.
It is the ambition of EvaluNation that this exploratory approach will give solid contributions in three areas: new knowledge on a topic of key societal significance; an interdisciplinary toolbox that renew our research methods; and a public discussion of evaluation methods based on a combination of academic analysis, dialogue with key actors, and experimental dissemination of research results.
Independent evaluation of public spending is a cornerstone of contemporary democracies, including Norway. The act of documenting that desired results are achieved as planned has become both an integral part of government and public administration and also an explicit public expectation. Given the critical democratic function and widespread deployment of both evaluation and performance audit in Norway, the lack of academic attention and scholarly analysis of these phenomena is surprising. International scholarship has demonstrated critical adverse effects of evaluation and audit upon public administration through analysis of the social and organizational aspects of evaluation and audit, yet consentrated less attention on the historical and technological developments that in practice have enabled and transformed both evaluation and audit. EVALUNATION is designed to fill this research gap by making the practical tools, methods, and infrastructures of evaluation - what the PI proposes to conceptualize as the 'optics of evaluation' - the main empirical object. A key premise of EVALUNATION is that evaluation involves large amounts of texts, and that analyzing the writing, circulation, and use of these texts is indispensable for understanding the role of evaluation in society. EVALUNATION aims to contribute substantially to the establishment of a distinct methodology for the study of how large-scale document-centered institutions and processes are being transformed by digitalization. The project team and work packages are composed to enable this radical and experimental interdisciplinarity by transgressing the dichotomies of historical/contemporary, qualitative/quantitative, and material/digital. Integrated into these high academic ambitions is a detailed plan for interacting with the professional evaluation community in Norway as a means for both gaining best possible data, verifying preliminary analyses, and enabling exploitation of project results.