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Fishing or Gardening? Reflections on leadership in evaluation capacity building

Updated: Dec 11, 2020



I recently attended a UKES 'Window on Evaluation' in which Dugan Fraser talked about leadership and what it means to him in his role as Director of the Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results (CLEAR) in Anglophone Africa, based in Johannesburg. He spoke from the heart with personal reflections on evaluation leadership in the context of CLEAR’s remit of growing evaluation ecosystems in African countries. For Dugan leadership in building evaluation systems is like gardening: sometimes a gardener must act – plant, feed, prune to catalyse, promote, strengthen and shape growth. But at least as important, is knowing when to step back and let the garden do its own growing, allowing plants and vegetation to co-evolve to a new future. The use of a gardening analogy has its roots in 'systemic leadership'. Systemic leaders don't attempt to ‘own’ or ‘command’ the systems in the settings they are engaged with, but rather facilitate growth of the system – intervening here, supporting there, nurturing relationships, and supporting others to find solutions to challenges.


I’d like to think in the roles I’ve played in UK Central Government evaluation and elsewhere that I’ve been involved a bit as a gardener. Dugan’s talk made me reflect on my time in DECC (now BEIS) – this was a place full of opportunity – relatively fertile soils, ample feed, and light, and mostly predictable temperatures. The setting was apt for catalysing, nurturing and supporting growth and, as we developed, we were increasingly able to step back to see a great deal of natural growth and new directions. But in fact, there was also a fair bit of fishing involved too…


In their excellent article “Teaching people to fish? Building the evaluation capability of public sector organizations” McDonald, Rogers and Kefford (2003[1]) develop the individually focused epigram “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime,” extending it to a systems-level in which “as well as individuals skilled in catching fish, we need the equipment to successfully fish, an effective distribution system, people who want to eat fish, and an entire fishing system that is sustainable.” The point being that there is a need to focus on working with the whole system and to do so in a strategic and planned way – making sure all parts of the system are evolving towards the desired ‘system’.


Whilst the fishing analogy refers to the structure of the underlying evaluation system that’s needed and the parts of the system that need to be in place, I find the gardening analogy provides a complementary perspective about leadership style and how to personally engage with these parts of the system.


[1] Teaching people to fish? Building the evaluation capability of public sector organizations, Bron McDonald, Patricia Rogers and Bruce Kefford, Evaluation, 2003; 9; 9



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