Elevating lived experience in evaluation

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May 2019

By Jade Maloney

With the rise of co-design, co-production and co-delivery, lived experience is being increasingly valued in policy and program design and delivery.[1] What does this mean for evaluators?

In research, there is a growing body of evidence about the role of peer researchers. Having someone with lived experience on the team can help to address power imbalances and enhance understanding, if they are well supported. The active involvement of a consumer researcher in all stages of the process can create powerful mutual learning.[2]

In evaluation, we have collaborative, participatory and empowerment evaluation approaches, but these involve varying levels of stakeholder involvement and ownership and don’t necessarily involve people with lived experience as evaluators.

Recognising the value that diverse lived experience can bring to evaluation, alongside the need to evaluate their programs, and the barriers that their members face in translating their experience and qualifications into professional career opportunities in Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre established the Lived Experience Evaluators Project (LEEP) pilot. This was the subject of an Australian Evaluation Society (AES) Seminar on 15 May in Melbourne.

What is the Lived Experience Evaluators Project?

The LEEP pilot was co-designed with Asylum Seeker Resource Centre members. It provides a six-month paid internship to selected members, who bring diverse experience and qualifications – from health service delivery to business.

The project has three components.

  • Training: Interns engage in training and development in line with the AES Professional Learning Competency Framework from a range of evaluators who donate their time. This approach means not only that the contribution from each evaluator is manageable, but that interns are able to broaden their professional networks.
  • Mentoring: A range of evaluation professionals volunteer their time to provide individual mentoring.
  • Practical project: Interns work on an evaluation of an Asylum Seeker Resource Centre program that draws on their skills, qualifications and experience.

What is beyond the project?

While the concept of evaluators with lived experience is not new, this project has goals that extend beyond a project mentality. 

As the internships come to a close, the focus is on supporting career pathways into the evaluation sector through site visits to evaluation teams and opportunities to find roles in the sector. The focus here is not just on people with lived experience of seeking asylum having access to paid, stable, fulfilling employment opportunities – which is important – but on the value that people with lived experience can bring to the evaluation sector. They can bring insights that others cannot and ask different kinds of questions.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is currently evaluating the project, with the support of Clear Horizon, and considering the feasibility of scaling, with the support of Social Ventures Australia.

This project shows what is possible when thinking beyond the box as well as about who holds the box in evaluation.

What next for lived experience in evaluation?

If the enthusiasm of the Victorian evaluation sector is anything to go by, the future of elevating lived experience in evaluation looks bright.

We look forward to hearing more from the LEEP pilot and to continuing discussions about lived experience in evaluation at the AES International Conference in Sydney this September. Our teams will be presenting on engaging people with lived experience through two presentations.

  • Beyond co-design to co-evaluation: Reflections on collaborating with consumer researchers: Supporting the emergent literature – and challenging the historical view of consumers as passive potential beneficiaries of research and evaluation process – the active involvement of a consumer researcher in all stages of the evaluation process creates powerful mutual learning. We will discuss how to practically support consumer researchers in evaluation to contribute their lived experience, to further develop their professional skills, and to foster greater ownership of evaluation for the community. We suggest minimising potential power disparities between the evaluation team and the consumer researcher through a mentoring and allyship model. Finally, we will raise important implications for the practice and wider discipline of evaluation.
  • Harnessing the power of co: This presentation provides practical ideas for harnessing the power of co-working with people with lived experience – in different contexts from projects with organisations working with people with autism, dementia, psychosocial disability and intellectual disability, across locations and cultures. We cover the design, data collection, analysis and interpretation, and reporting phases, with options for meaningful engagement when you have years versus weeks or days.

We hope to continue the dialogue with other evaluators about how we can all grow engagement with lived experience evaluators.


[1] See for example: John Lammers & Brenda Happell (2004) Mental health reforms and their impact on consumer and carer participation: A perspective from Victoria, Australia, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 25:3, 261-276, DOI: 10.1080/01612840490274769; Happell, B., & Scholz, B. (2018). Doing what we can, but knowing our place: Being an ally to promote consumer leadership in mental health. International Journal Of Mental Health Nursing, 27(1), 440–447. https://doi-org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/10.1111/inm.12404.

[2] Brosnan, L. (2012). Power and Participation: An Examination of the Dynamics of Mental Health Service-User Involvement in Ireland. Studies in Social Justice, 6(1), 45–66. Retrieved from https://ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=phl&AN=PHL2204526&site=eds-live&scope=site