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What Does “Effective” Mean?

Schweigert, F.J. “The meaning of effectiveness in assessing community initiatives.” American Journal of Evaluation. Dec 2006. 27(4):416-426.

Evaluators have a way of coming up with answers to questions we didn’t know we had, such as, “what does ‘effective’ mean?” This article points out that the meaning varies according to context. Sometimes a positive judgement means the changes that occurred were the ones that were expected; in others it requires that the changes were better than what would have occurred without any intervention (which needs evidence regarding cause and effect). In true academic evaluator fashion, the author presents three different meanings of “effectiveness”:

  • increased understanding through clarifying assumptions, documenting influences, identifying patterns, assessing expected and unexpected results, etc.
  • accountability through making decisions based on performance expectations and standards, such as in benchmarking.
  • demonstration of causal linkages through experimental and quasi-experimental evidence showing what works. “Although randomized experiments have been called the ‘gold standard’ of social science research and evaluation, evaluators are well aware that experimental designs are not always possible, feasible, necessary, or even desirable.” (p. 427)

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