Three fieldwork tips for junior evaluators

I learnt a lot on my first fieldwork trip with Itad. Working on a case study as part of the DFID-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, I spent eight days in Nairobi in June 2019 looking into a ‘policy dialogue’ process around decentralised climate finance (DCF) in Kenya. There, I spoke to relevant stakeholders and partners to assess the relevance and success of that process in fast-tracking DCF nationally.

On top of project-related learning, this experience taught me some extremely valuable lessons on the realities of working as an early-career evaluator in the field. Here they are in the form of three tips:

Tip #1: Be prepared

Perhaps it goes without saying but you should know as much as possible about the project, the context and the stakeholders before you head out on a fieldwork trip. The limited time you have with interviewees is precious and the less of it you spend figuring out the basics of the project, the better. Key to this is lots of reading in the run-up, which includes resisting that urge to binge on in-flight movies and choosing to re-study that mountain of annual reports instead.

Talk with as many people as you can pre-trip, too. You could ask colleagues or friends about their experiences on similar projects or ask the client or implementing partner in advance what they expect you might find (being aware of anchoring bias – being influenced by information provided prior to your own judgement – of course). Getting these perspectives in advance reduces the risk of encountering any surprises in the field.

Another way to prepare is spending time on data collection and analysis tools (e.g. interview guides and matrices), adapting them for different stakeholders if relevant, and testing them. This will ensure the data you collect is the data you need and that the later analysis process is as rigorous as possible.

Of course, there are times when this level of preparation isn’t possible. Maybe at the last minute you’re called out to a different fieldwork site or the client abruptly changes the scope, which brings me to my next tip…

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Tip #2: Be flexible

Any researcher will tell you that fieldwork trips will never go exactly to plan, no matter how much you prepare. This is why it’s important to be flexible and not allow the preparation done as per tip #1 to give you tunnel vision. You should expect to come across those surprises you’ve mitigated against, expect interviewees to fall off the face of the earth and expect to be constantly questioning your own judgements. This is all part of the learning process – so enjoy it!

When it comes to data collection, keep in mind what kind of research you’re doing and the approach you’ve chosen to adopt. For a utilisation-focused impact evaluation with clear evaluation questions you’ll need to stay focused to not end up with a bunch of useless data in the end. For a more participatory or inductive approach you may have some extra flexibility to explore interesting ideas that come up and could alter your view on things.

Also, take time at the end of each day to reflect and write up what you learned. These reflections may or may not feed in to your later analysis but will definitely help you collect your thoughts for the next day and may even lead to you tweak subsequent data collection methods. So, make sure your tools, processes and mindsets are flexible.

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Tip #3: Be realistic

Wouldn’t it be nice to present the client with a comprehensive and detailed analysis of their project’s achievements and impacts, whilst painting a complete picture of every relevant context, ‘alternative explanation’ or ‘contributing factor’? I know that’s what I wanted. Unfortunately, the reality is very different, especially in budget- and deadline-constrained evaluation projects.

We can only know what we know. And we can only know what the evidence tells us. My advice would be to resist the temptation to paint that full picture by overemphasising the juicy findings or filling gaps with half-baked judgements. It is much better practice to present your findings as ‘this is what we know and this is what we know we don’t know’ than to exaggerate one person’s perspective in an attempt to prove yourself on your first big trip.

If you’ve been prepared (tip #1) and are flexible (tip #2) throughout the process then your findings will be valuable and you will most likely have all the evidence you need. If not, there should be a reasonable explanation for any lack of data. For example, maybe the right people were unavailable during your visit or some of the evidence you were looking for just doesn’t exist. Being realistic, part of which includes managing expectations, is key.

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So, those are my three fieldwork tips for future me, other junior evaluators or just about anyone doing field research. To sum up my top tips for conducting fieldwork, prepare before you go, be flexible while you’re there and be realistic about what you’re able to present when you get back, and you’re on to a winner (if you ask me).

Gregg Smith is a Consultant in the Climate Change theme at Itad. The report produced as a result of the trip described in this post can be found here.