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Evaluation Capacity Building in Primary Prevention: Lifting our gaze to the conditions for success in primary prevention

by Kate Baker

When it comes to improving the health and wellbeing of our communities, there's quite a lot of peddling going on. Needless to say we've been peddling even harder through these recent times of COVID-19. We are working hard to manage the increasing load on our mental health services system. We are working hard to respond to the impacts of racism, gender inequity, poor diet and our increasingly sedentary lives. We are working hard to manage 'the loneliness epidemic' and its associated health effects, and not to mention a struggling aged care system. There's a lot going on and I can't help but feel like there's quite a bit of bumping around in the dark as we work hard to build happy, healthy communities. I'm not really sure we are getting to the bottom of things.  

But in order to get to the bottom of things, we need to lift our gaze to the top of things. Let's zoom out and get big picture, cause and effect. Let's go up into the sky and look down at us peddling oh so fast to try and keep up with it all. 

Perhaps this view might show us a better way, or a few things we could try doing differently, where a little less peddling in the dark is required, and where we might more clearly see what is needed to create the communities we all want to be a part of.

Of course, I'm talking about evaluation and learning, about taking the time to understand what works, for whom and why, and investing in this. If we want our work to have meaningful, long-lasting impact and if we truly want to understand the myriad ways in which we might effectively achieve that, we need to ask ourselves what we are learning from our work and unpack the hidden scripts that might be impeding our success. 

Cultures that embrace evaluative thinking, safe-to-fail-learning and evidence-based decision making might help us get there. We need to acknowledge that working to build community health and wellbeing, including environmental sustainability, in our modern times is highly complex work. It's not always as simple as A + B = C. It's often messier than that. It requires us to be humble, open and authentic, and will be, by far, further progressed through genuine collaboration. This requires a shift not only in our mindsets, but in what we are doing, with whom and why.

But how? 

Getting to better 

One thing I have learnt whilst working to build the evaluation capacity of primary prevention in Melbourne's west is that it's early days for evaluation in the primary prevention sector. Whilst many agree upon the value of learning and evaluation, it seems that such views, generally speaking, don't yet translate to embedded practice within organisations and the system more broadly, beyond that of compliance and reporting based models.

Zooming out and lifting our gaze again, we are aware through the recent evaluation capacity building efforts of HealthWest Partnership and the Western Region Primary Prevention Taskforce that there are a multitude of forces and omissions, both structural and relational, at play. It may be these features across the system that are holding us back, keeping that status quo, that peddling in the dark, in place. 

Let's consider the complex context in which primary prevention and health promotion, and the associated evaluation of this work, is placed. It sits within and across a wide range of organisations, institutions, services, peak and government bodies. It is guided by a range of policies, processes, structures and guidelines, and is mostly dependent upon resourcing provided by government or philanthropy – all of which and all of whom have a role to play in a shift towards a robust, impactful and fluid culture of evaluative thinking and, ultimately, towards healthier happier communities.

Whilst we have many bright spots - committed and skilled practitioners, eager workforce learners and access to high-quality on-line resources - these are just spotlights, when we need to turn the evaluation light on across the whole system. 

All hands on deck 

Evaluation Capacity Building in Primary Prevention, a report commissioned by HealthWest Partnership, brings to light the steps we can take, across the primary prevention system to build an environment that enables evaluation and learning. It highlights the conditions needed to elevate evaluative thinking, practice and decision making. It shows us that, above all else, capacity cannot be built in isolation. What is required is action at multiple levels, by multiple actors in multiple ways. 

There is an interplay between the micro and the macro. There is an interplay between:

  • individual practitioners and the organisational cultures within which they work
  • organisational cultures and the systems and structures those organisations establish to support their practitioners to reflect and learn
  • organisations across networks and geographies
  • stewards of the system and the organisations and services they fund
  • the culture within our government departments, the attitudes of leaders and an individual practitioner's capacity to conduct well-rounded reflection and learning on the activities they run.

The paths of influence are many and varied, yet tangible steps, at a few different levels can be taken to build evaluation, reflection and learning in a more impactful and wholistic way.

System leaders – System stewards can lead by conducting needs assessments and developing evaluation agendas at the sector level. They can facilitate the building of relationships with philanthropy, sector organisations and educational bodies, and can play a role in the provision of advice, guidance and expertise to those working on the ground. Funding could be allocated towards evaluation and evaluation capacity building (as we see in other sectors) with new resourcing models based on co-design and collaboration.

Organisations – At the organisational and service level, senior leaders might seek to build their knowledge of monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) and explore how they can create organisational cultures that support this work. Organisation-wide theories of change and MEL frameworks can be created and supported through the allocation of staff time to MEL, by regularly assessing the organisation's evaluation capacity, and by including reflection and learning in meetings and planning processes. Data collection systems can be reviewed for greater reporting efficiency and to better enable MEL activities. Organisations might work more closely with evaluation capacity builders to attract funding to continue efforts in this space.

Evaluation capacity builders – Working with organisational and system leaders to leverage off existing success can be a way for evaluation capacity builders to continue to build capability. By continuing to collaborate across the system to understand needs, evaluation capacity builders can consider new and different ways to tailor and deliver evaluation capacity building beyond one-size-fits all approaches.
By lifting our gaze to see the big picture we can see more clearly what might be holding us back, as well as the range of opportunities we have to work together so that we might work a little smarter in how we create healthy happy communities.


Kate Baker is an evaluation and systems thinking enthusiast with a keen interest in how we can create meaningful social impact through safe-to-fail learning, collaborative design and innovation. She is passionate about exploring the shifts we can make in how we think about and create inclusive and healthy environments where people can thrive. 

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