A Framework for Participatory Inquiry

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The Equitable Evaluation Initiative challenges us to “reimagine the purpose and practice of evaluation” to “work toward creating a world in which we all thrive and one where the multiple truths of the human experience are valued and valid”. This is of utmost importance in our current moment in history, when the COVID-19 pandemic and repeated incidents of police violence have highlighted the racial inequities that have long been present throughout our society, structures, and systems. As we reorient our evaluation practice to have a central focus on advancing equity, we must begin by seeking the participation, expertise, and guidance of the people who are most affected by the issues that we hope to address.

ICH has long held the belief that program and community stakeholders have critical expertise and lived experience that adds value to evaluation work. We structure our work around this belief and seek to incorporate participatory approaches into our projects. However, we recognize that we often operate under constraints that limit participation in practice, and that there are opportunities to deepen our approaches and shift power towards participants.  Recently, we have observed a growing interest in participatory approaches among clients and funders, and we have also noticed that the term “participatory” can mean very different things to different people. In our internal reflections as an organization, we identified the need to engage in more open dialogue about participatory approaches and to be more transparent about how we determine the approach for each project.

To facilitate conversations and decision-making about participatory approaches, we developed a Participatory Inquiry framework that was inspired by and adapted from the three dimensions of collaborative inquiry articulated by Cousins and Whitmore in 1998[1]. To add practical applicability to the concepts put forth by Cousins and Whitmore, we structured our framework around three sequential questions that aim to identify and articulate the participating stakeholders, the activities carried out by each group of stakeholders, and the decision-making power different stakeholders have at various stages of a project.

The framework provides a structure for conversations within our internal project teams as well as with clients and funders.  We are currently applying this framework to a range of projects to better understand where we are and where we can go when it comes to participatory evaluation. We hope that through careful consideration of these three questions, we can be more intentional, nuanced, and transparent in how we incorporate participatory approaches into our work, and identify opportunities to deepen participation and move towards more equitable processes over time.

[1] Cousins and Whitmore, “Framing Participatory Evaluation”, New Directions for Evaluation  80, 1998


Ranjani Paradise, PhD

Director of Evaluation

Jeffrey Desmarais, MA

Research and Evaluation Scientist/Manager of Partnership Development