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How do policy evaluators understand complexity?

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Amy Proctor, Professor Jeremy Phillipson



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Sage Publications, 2020.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


There is well-documented interest in how insights from the study of complexity can be applied to policy evaluation. However, important questions remain as to how complexity is understood and used by policy evaluators. We present findings from semi-structured interviews with thirty UK policy evaluators. We explore how they understand, use, and approach complexity, and consider the implications for evaluation research and practice. Findings reveal understandings of complexity arising from contextual factors, scale-related issues, and perceptions of unpredictability. The evidence indicates terminogical and analogical use of complexity and its concepts by policy evaluators, but limited evidence of its literal use. Priorities for the future include framing complexity more pragmatically and as an opportunity not a cost. Communicating this up the policy hierarchy is key to progressing complexity-appropriate evaluation – this can be enabled by strengthening links between policy evaluation and academic communities.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Barbrook-Johnson P, Proctor A, Giorgi S, Phillipson J

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Evaluation

Year: 2020

Volume: 26

Issue: 3

Pages: 315-332

Online publication date: 18/07/2020

Acceptance date: 15/04/2020

Date deposited: 06/07/2020

ISSN (print): 1356-3890

ISSN (electronic): 1461-7153

Publisher: Sage Publications


DOI: 10.1177/1356389020930053


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