AEA 2013 | Was it worth it?

AEA 13 capitol white houseEvaluation 2013: The State of Evaluation Practice in the Early 21st Century 

When you decide to travel 20 plus hours to attend the 27th annual conference of the American Evaluation Association, this year in Washington DC, there has to be some ‘expected’ value that makes the travel, the time away from family, the build up of work and the cost worthwhile.

So what are my criteria to be able to say “yes, it was worth it”.  For me its a mix of reconnecting with friends and colleagues, the opportunity to learn from others both theory and practice as well as things that I can apply immediately when I get home.  I also like to get a sense of what’s trending in evaluation, what’s on the rise and what’s emerging. Then there’s the opportunity to share what I’m doing and to build new relationships with evaluators I’ve yet to meet.

Catching up with friends and colleagues.  Did really well here. Racked and stacked dinners, breakfasts, birthday drinks and conviviality (post conference party). TIG events and meetings, the Silent Auction and Poster session also provide opportunities to connect with new ideas and make new friends.

Learn from others – theory and practice. It would be hard to attend a conference of the breadth, scope and size of AEA and for learning not to occur. So it’s about maximising and taking advantage of the abundance of opportunities that there are in the short timeframe of the conference. So I came away with lots to think about particularly in terms of sustainability, evidence based principles and facilitation; and I also came away with lots of practical tips about apps and software, advice on hardware options (e.g. data collection kiosks) and ways of working with graphic designers and web programmers to enhance the accessibility and usefulness of evaluation findings and learning.

What’s trending? In some sense what’s trending is what you focus your gaze on and attend to; what you go looking for to confirm your own sense of what’s on the rise. – as well as what assumes prominence because of the number of presentations, the number of speakers and because it’s what’s on everyone’s lips. I looked for and therefore I found sustainability (organisational and programme) as well as environmental sustainability; greater exploration of both the application and ethics of datavizualisation and the application of evidence based principles (distinct from evidence base practice). As an early adopter of Developmental evaluation it was great to see nearly 40 conference presentations featuring developmental evaluation.

Meet new people, begin to build new relationships. Presenting on the Saturday is tough. Many people have had to leave, interest and energy levels are waning and very small numbers attending a session is not uncommon.  On the other hand these are also the sessions where you can really engage with the presenters.  This was my experience for  Saturday morning 8:00am to 9:30am session.  There was a total of 4 people; two presenters and two in the audience.  So rather then present in a room set up for 30-40 people, we took ourselves downstairs and over coffee, got to know one another, our work and to discuss the presentation in a more personal and intimate setting. We’ve agreed to share work and stay in touch with one another. So whilst I think the presenters may have been initially disappointed with the turn out – although never entirely unexpected when you draw a first up slot on Saturday – and given the time and effort putting together a presentation, I like to believe they got something out of the session. I know that I did and look forward to staying connected over the next 12 months and reconnecting in Denver at AEA14.

As a board member of the Aotearoa New Zealand Evaluation Association (ANZEA) I also took the opportunity to meet with two keynote speakers for the Anzea 2014 conference, provide some background to Aotearoa New Zealand and to discuss how the association could manaaki (host and care for) them while in NZ. I knew of, but did not know them personally, so whilst I was extending a welcome on behalf of the Anzea board and conference committee it was the start of new relationships which I hope will flourish over time.

Was it worth it ? Is almost a rhetorical question – but still worth answering.  In one sense the judgement about worth was made at the time I scheduled the conference days into my diary some 11 months previous; affirmed when I confirmed the  accommodation arrangements when the AEA conference options came online; and reaffirmed when I booked and paid for my tickets, and the not inexpensive upgrade from economy to business for the 13 hour Auckland – San Francisco leg of my flight. So I’d already decided it was worth it.

However worth is also closely associated with value. What was the value to me of attending the conference; and was the value derived sufficient (a little… a lot). The value was in connecting and reconnecting with old and new friends and colleagues; affirming of my, our, Maori, New Zealand, Indigenous evaluation approaches and practice; and exposure to and exploring of old and new ideas and concepts; mixed with good wine, good food (some)  and great – fun, inspiring, insightful and challenging – company.

AEA 14 banner logo

Was it worth it. You betcha! See you in Denver; roll on AEA14.

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