Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Last Salute

As some of you may know, my dad passed away in November.  He did some great things throughout his life and while I would love to spend some serious time here eulogizing for him, it really wasn’t his style (and this is more of an evaluation blog than anything else).  He tended to work in the background in more of a support role, embodying the servant leader versus leading the charge.  Some might thus find it strange that my dad retired as a Commander in the United States Naval Reserves back in the 1980s.

I have vague memories of his service, his being away from our family for extended periods of time, of him serving as the commanding officer for at least one reserve unit.  But, I also have strong memories of a man that took interest in the things and people entrusted into his care.  He worked hard to make things better for these people and the things he worked on and while he would scratch his head in wonder, it was his example that drove me to evaluation and to this day affects how I approach it.

There is more I can say on my dad’s influence on me, both as a person and as a professional evaluator, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.

Many American veterans receive a special ceremony at their grave site.  My father was no different.  During this ceremony, members of the United States Navy rendered honors to my dad, first saluting him as he arrived at the grave site, playing taps, and toward the end of our experience, carefully removing the flag that draped over his casket and folding it for presentation to me.  What happened next moved me and made me think in retrospect about being an evaluator.

I held my dad’s flag in my hands, having had them presented to me by a Chief Petty Officer (CPO).  He then stood at attention and slowly, deliberately, rendered my dad his last salute.  I had seen men and women salute my dad through his career – often saluting the uniform, but not the man.  This one was qualitatively different.  There was meaning and emotion behind that salute.  There was power behind that salute.  It was goodbye to the man, not a simply following of a ritual from page 10 of a manual.

As evaluators, we are asked to do many things.  It is easy to just collect data, analyze it and report it without putting something of ourselves into it.  The rituals of evaluation are nearly the same, what can change is how we engage in those rituals.  As an evaluator, I’m proud to say that I don’t just salute the uniform.  Rather, I recognize that I am part of the system and that my work will have an impact and has meaning for the stakeholders.   As evaluators, we need to recognize that we serve a purpose that positions us as different than researchers.  We need to recognize that our work can, and often does, result in change.  Our mere presence, much as the men who stood at attention at my dad’s grave affects the programs, the organizations and systems we support as evaluators.

By accepting the fact that our work has an impact, doesn’t it make sense that we embrace the notion?  The professor that taught my first evaluation course so many years ago said, “evaluation isn’t like research.”  At the time, he was referencing issues of control groups and the like, but I think of it differently.  Evaluation isn’t like research because evaluation has evolved into something different.  Research is passive - focusing on learning a specific nugget of information without changing a thing.  Evaluation is active - looking to provide information that improves and changes what it touches.  As evaluators, we need to embrace that role, much as the CPO did for my dad.

Good bye dad.  Thank you for all you taught me.  And thank you to the CPO, whom never met my dad in life, you reasserted for me what it means to provide a true and meaningful service.  Your reminded me that as a person, I can affect others and as an evaluator, I can do so much more.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.  Please leave comments with your thoughts.

Warm regards,

The Evaluation Evangelist

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