Leadership in theory-based evaluation: an exploration of the feasibility and added-value of incorporating a focus on leadership in programme evaluation
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Evaluation is a relatively new field that is becoming increasingly embedded in society as a social activity supporting modern norms and values. Theory-based evaluations are a contemporary approach to evaluation that aim to identify the causal mechanisms impacting a programme in order to make inferences about its success or failure. Whilst effective leadership has been identified as a factor necessary for a programme's success, it remains under-considered in literature relating to methodology of evaluation. Drawing on an Irish case study, the process evaluation of the Tallaght West Childhood Development Initiative (CDI), this research aims to address this short-coming through examining the feasibility and added value of incorporating a focus on leadership in theory-based evaluations. The field work undertook for this research comprises 155 interviews, approximately 500 documents, and 80 observations. First, a quantitative retro-analysis examines the existence of leadership indicators in interview transcripts from evaluation studies that did not directly focus on leadership. Second, a prospective analysis is conducted of an evaluation study which had an explicit focus on leadership. This research first establishes that leadership is a topic of interest for evaluators and interviewees who talk about leadership features even when the focus is another topic. It then demonstrates that it is feasible to explicitly assess leadership as part of an evaluation study, notably through classic qualitative methods such as interviews, documentary analysis, and observations. To support this argument and establish the added value of incorporating a focus on leadership, a narrative of CDI's leadership story is depicted, providing detail about emerging formats of collaborative leadership that suit complex social interventions. This research makes the argument that the added value of incorporating a focus on leadership mainly rests in its ability to support causal inferences made in theory-based evaluations through a better understanding of how leadership operates. Theoretically, this approach is compatible with the two prominent types of theory-based evaluations: it can be considered as one of the mechanisms examined in CMO (Context-Mechanism-Outcomes) configurations in realist evaluations, or as a causal mechanism that activates the links between contexts, activities, and outcomes in theory of change approaches. The knowledge produced by this research contributes primarily to the field of evaluation, but is also relevant to other fields such as leadership research and implementation science.
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