Most of my work lies with the organizations of what Henry Mintzberg calls “The plural sector.” These are the organizations tasked with picking up the work that governments and corporations refuse to do. As we have sunk further and further into the 40 year experiment of neo-liberalism, governments have abandoned the space of care for communities and citizens especially if that care clashes with an ideology of reducing taxes to favour the wealthy and the largely global corporate sector. Likewise on the corporate side a singular focus on shareholder return and the pursuit of capital friendly jurisdictions with low tax rates and low wages means that corporations can reap economic benefits without any responsibility for the social effects of their policy influence.
Here’s how Mintzberg puts it, in a passionate defence of the role of these organizations:
“We can hardly expect governments—even ostensibly democratic ones—that have been coopted by their private sectors or overwhelmed by the forces of corporate globalization to take the lead in initiating radical renewal. A sequence of failed conferences on global warming has made this quite clear.
Nor can private sector businesses be expected to take the lead. Why should they promote changes to redress an imbalance that favors so many of them, especially the most powerful? And although corporate social responsibility is certainly to be welcomed, anyone who believes that it will compensate for corporate social irresponsibility is not reading today’s newspapers.”
What constantly surprises me in this work is how much accountability is placed on the plural sector for achieving outcomes around issues that they have so little role in creating.
While corporations are able to simply externalize effects of their operations that are relevant to their KPIs and balance sheets, governments are increasingly held to account by citizens for failing to make significant change with ever reduced resources and regulatory influence. Strident anti-government governments are elected and they immediately set out to dismantle what is left of the government’s role, peddling platitudes such as “taxation is theft” and associated libertarian nonsense. They generally, and irresponsibly, claim that the market is the better mechanism to solve social problems even though the market has been shown to be a psychotic beast hell bent on destroying local communities, families and the climate in pursuit of it’s narrowly focused agenda. In the forty years since Regan, Thatcher and Mulroney went to war against government, the market has failed on nearly every score to create secure economic and environmental futures for all peoples. And it has utterly stripped entire nations of wealth and resources causing their people to flee the ensuing wars, depressions, and environmental destruction. Migrants run headlong into the very countries that displaced them in the first place and meet there a hostile resistance to the newcomers. Xenophobia and racism gets channeled into policy and simply increases the rate of exploitation and wealth concentration.
And yet, the people I know who struggle under the most pressure to prove their worth are the organizations of the plural sector who are subject to onerous and ontologically incorrect evaluation criteria aimed at, presumably, assuring their founders that the rabble are not only responsibly spending money (which is totally understsndsble) but also making a powerful impact on issues which are driven by forces well outside their control.
I’m increasingly understanding the role of a great deal of superficial evaluation in actually restricting the effectiveness of the plural sector so that they may be relegated to harm reduction for capitalism, rather than pursuing the radical reforms to our global economic system that will lead to sustainability. It’s fristrating for so many on the frontlines and it has led for calls for much more unrestricted granting in order to allow organizations to effectively allocate their resources, respond to emerging patterns, and learn from their work.
There are some fabulous people working in the field of evaluation to try to disrupt this dynamic by developing robust methods of complexity informed research in support of what the front line of the plural sector is tasked with. The battle now, especially now that science itself is under attack, is to make these research methods widely understood and effective in not simply evaluating the work of the plural sector but also shunting a light on the clear patterns at play in our economic system.
I’ll be running an online course in the winter with Beehive Productions where we look at evaluation from the perspective of facilitators and leaders of social change. We won’t shy away from this conversation as we look at where evaluation practice has extended beyond the narrow confines of program improvement and into larger social conversation. We will look at history and power and how evaluation is weaponized against radical reform in favour of, at best, sustaining good programs and at worst shutting down effective work.