The Eleanor Chelimsky Forum:
Integrating Theory and Practice
Jill Feldman1 and John Kelley2
In response to Eleanor Chelimsky’s inspiring plenary address 3 years ago, and with generous support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Eastern Evaluation Research Society launched the
Eleanor Chelimsky Forum at its 2013 Annual Conference. The objective of this annual Forum, which has become a hallmark event in the evaluation world, is to spark meaningful dialogue about the interplay of evaluation theory and practice through open discussion among thought leaders, from practitioners to theorists.
Keywords dialogue, best practices, integrating theory and practice
Our aim should be to surface the various unresolved issues commonly raised by theorists and practitioners for discussion by experts in theory and practice along with a panel of diverse experienced evaluators—for rethinking, comment, criticism and debate. – Eleanor Chelimsky, 2012.
The idea for the Eleanor Chelimsky Forum came from a plenary paper titled, Balancing Theory and
Practice in the Real World, authored by Eleanor Chelimsky, one of the most insightful, influential, and respected evaluators of our era. She served as director of the Program Evaluation and Methodology Division of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1980 to 1994 and received GAO’s top honor, ‘‘The Comptroller General’s Award,’’ for unparalleled contributions to developing innovative approaches to evaluate government programs and using the results to enhance performance. She is currently an independent consultant for evaluation policy, practice, and methodology and is a member of American Evaluation Association (AEA)’s Evaluation Policy Task
Force. Her recent work includes projects for the U.S. Public Health Service, the European Commission, the World Bank, the National Academy of Public Administration, and others. Her plenary address, delivered at the 2012 EERS Annual Conference, appeared in the March 2013 issue of this journal, the American Journal of Evaluation. 1Westat, Rockville, MD, USA 2Haverford, Villanova, PA, USA
Jill Feldman, Westat, 1600 Research Boulevard, Rockville, MD 20850, USA.
American Journal of Evaluation 2015, Vol. 36(2) 221-242 ª The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permission: sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/1098214015573069 aje.sagepub.com
Her paper is a call to action in which Chelimsky invites evaluation scholars and practitioners to grapple with contemporary issues raised by evaluation thought leaders. As the purpose and reach of evaluative information continue to advance diverse and at times competing interests (e.g., interests of policy makers, administrators, special interest groups, and the general public), recent discussions have centered on the need for thoughtful dialogue to guide the growth and development of the field. Chelimsky’s view is that a better balance of the dynamic relationship between theory and practice can provide a stronger foundation to guide practice and that practice offers realitybased experience that can inform evolving theories. However, she acknowledges the divide between theorists and practitioners which reflects their differing views of what each considers central. Theorists focus on methods and principles internal to evaluation processes, while practitioners are concerned with how to apply theories within a complex, constantly changing environment. She views integrating both perspectives as an effective way of bridging the seemingly vast distance between these distinct vantage points and, more importantly, as the way to move our field forward.
In particular, Chelimsky urges us to explore practice-based solutions, to address current gaps in our theories, and to arrive at solutions that are broadly applicable. She asserts that the interplay of theory and practice has the potential to bridge the gaps between evaluation principles and the real-life situations in which they are applied. Her view is that theory serves to protect practice from anecdotalism, while practice protects theory from being divorced from reality. Among Chelimsky’s recommendations for improving the integration of theory and practice was the creation of a forum to foster continued dialogue to bridge this divide. Her vision is for theory and practice to each inform the other, adding ‘‘breadth, depth and realism to our work’’ (Chelimsky, 2013, p. 92).
At its first meeting, within hours following the address, the Eastern Evaluation Research Society (EERS) Board of Directors unanimously agreed to establish the Eleanor Chelimsky Forum as a centerpiece of its annual conference. EERS is the oldest continuously functioning association of professional evaluators in the United States, and its annual conference attracts practicing evaluators representing constituents in a range of disciplines at various stages in their careers. With generous assistance from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for advertising, hosting, and filming the event, EERS launched the first Eleanor Chelimsky Forum in 2013. The 36th Annual EERS Conference opened with a 90-min plenary session featuring esteemed evaluation experts, Michael Quinn
Patton and Tom Schwandt. The second Forum continued this tradition of excellence with Westat’s associate director, Deb Rog, offering her perspectives on ‘‘Infusing Theory into Practice, Practice
Into Theory: Small Wins and Big Gains for Evaluation.’’ Laura Leviton, RWJF Senior Adviser for
Evaluation, served as discussant, and both events concluded with facilitated question and answer sessions. AEA has become an invaluable partner in promoting the Forum, by publishing speaker manuscripts in AJE, making Forum videos available on the AEA website, and developing webinars to expand the conversation to an international audience. As a result, The Eleanor Chelimsky Forum has become an annual highlight within the evaluation field.