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Zita Unger: an evaluator’s journey

Zita Unger: an evaluator’s journey

by Anthea Rutter

Zita has been in the evaluation profession for over 26 years and has taken a number of roles over that period. She has been an evaluation lead, consultant and lecturer in evaluation. Zita was introduced as a Fellow in 2013 at the International Evaluation Conference held in Brisbane.


People come into the evaluation profession through a number of routes, so I was interested to find out from Zita what brought her into the field of evaluation. Her answer echoed the experiences of a large number of evaluators.

I fell into it! Happenstance played a role. I was contracted by Griffith University to write a critique of their environmental educational materials following my PhD dissertation. While also undertaking an instructional design course (incorporating program evaluation), I wrote a module for a Griffith University teacher education project, Teaching for a Sustainable World, which included an evaluation instrument for resource materials. In a roundabout way, this led to lecturing in evaluation to graduate Instructional Design students at Deakin University.

All the evaluators I have talked to have a myriad of evaluation expertise and interests. Zita’s was straight to the point!

Governance and survey design. In all of that work, the front-end design was always my interest. A lot of the work you do at the back end – the reporting end – is dependent upon how you developed the front end. Another of my interests is organisational development and 365-degree feedback. They all feed into each other.

Most of us have been challenged during our careers: indeed, you could say that overcoming challenges helps us to grow as professionals. Zita shares her own lessons, plus sound advice on pricing evaluations.

The first one is that people often do not know what evaluation is. Capacity building has been a large part of any consultancy which I do, so that people not only understand the process but they get to champion evaluation. 

Another challenge is with organisational development. When undertaking a strategic review for a medical institution, I was struck by the fact that consultants within organisational development were using similar techniques to evaluation techniques. 

Pricing is always a big challenge. When I had my evaluation consultancy, I was asked to give a presentation at the AEA [American Evaluation Association]. My presentation was on pricing evaluation, “the tail wagging the dog”. I talked about program budgets, workflow, project activities pipeline and cost benefit (plus other areas). Attention to pricing can position evaluation and our services. 

Another challenge is having the confidence to talk about cost in the early stages of a career. Of course, clients really expect that conversation. Towards the end, I put in several line items. One of them was meta evaluation, review, thinking time etc. You need the confidence and experience to do this. If younger evaluators can shadow the older more experienced ones it would give them some confidence. Need to have the budget talk. It is important to match each other’s expectations – makes for a happier evaluation, than overpricing and not delivering. 

Alongside the challenges, a long successful career has its highlights.

On the work front, Zita talked about a major evaluation in the tertiary sector. For her, this was particularly enjoyable as it covered a large number of issues and areas: evaluation of their project writing; implementation; and an institutional review of each of the universities. 

Another highlight was being awarded the Evaluation Training and Service Award – a co-award. As well, the evaluation development award, for an online survey management system. An outstanding highlight was becoming a Fellow. It says so much about peer recognition and the huge amount of work we put in as evaluators. This recognition brings it all together.

In common with many of the Fellows’ interviews, there are a number of influences defining her practice, and Zita cited a few.

John Owen’s methods book [Program Evaluation, Forms and Approaches] was very influential. I was asked to write a critical review of it, so I became familiar with it. Then I was very struck by Patricia Rogers when I heard her speak on logic modelling. It was at the AEA. The theme was truth, beauty and justice, based on Ernie House’s book [Evaluating with Validity]. I was very impressed, talking about logic modelling in terms of truth, beauty, justice etc. so then I looked at logic modelling in a different way. Also, the AEA big names were very influential, especially in capacity building, the GAO [US Government Accountability Office], and Ray Rist from World Bank – he talked about evaluation capacity to strengthen governance. He referred to a supply and demand model which talked about institutional, financial, human, and technical capital. I felt it was very important for my practice.

Like many professions, evaluation has gone through many changes over the years, and these changes mean different things to different people. I asked Zita what she saw as the major changes to the profession.

Zita responded that there is now more focus on cultural sensitivity and Indigenous evaluation. Also, more focus on evaluative thinking. She also felt that there is a greater emphasis on process than there used to be. Outcome has changed over time – less on performance but more on process matters. As well, evaluations now have a greater focus on impact. However, she feels that we should always take into account the latest trends as it changes your own thinking over time. 

To keep pace with the emerging trends in evaluation practice, I was curious to find out what Zita felt were the main skills or competencies that evaluators need to have or develop.

People need to be open to a range of methodologies. You might get comfortable with a range of methods, but you need to be open to different ways of doing things. You need variety, and to try to think about something new and see what that means for your toolbox. Being reflective as you make it more diverse.

We also discussed what she saw as the main social issues that evaluators ought to be thinking about and seeking to resolve in the next decade.

The conversation pointed to a desire for accreditation. The professional development the AES runs has no standard. The government needs to say that we are a professional body which provides professional training and competency which is recognised by someone – we need to be an accredited society. 

Zita has been involved with the society in a number of roles: member of the awards, ethics and standards committees, and member and presenter for the AES Victorian branch. She was also on the AES Conference Committee for the Melbourne conference (twice). I felt she would be in a good position to ponder the direction which the AES should take in the future.

Zita reiterated her desire for an accredited AES. She also felt that the AES should be the go-to for any media comment in evaluation. University departments teaching evaluation in their own discipline without reference to the AES is something she would like to see changed


Zita Unger is an independent director on various boards and has several governance roles. Her main interests are in the areas of governance, strategy and evaluation.

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