From first-order to second-order evaluation practice: time to shift the ground

Joan O'Donnell
Published in
11 min readJan 1, 2023


Barbara Schmidt-Abbey (Open University)
Joan O’Donnell (Maynooth University)
Kirsten Bording Collins (Adaptive Purpose)

The title of the 14th European Evaluation Society’s Biennial conference in Copenhagen in June 2022 posited that evaluation finds itself at a watershed and called for “actions and shifting paradigms in challenging times”.

At the time of the conference, and when readers read this, nobody can be left in any doubt that we indeed live in challenging and uncertain times that require an urgent shift in our thinking and doing as evaluators. The ongoing pandemic, war raging on the European continent, a looming energy and food crisis amidst rampant inflation, and extreme weather events are stark signs of ‘systems failures’ that are becoming increasingly harder to ignore and stay complacent about.

Picture 1: Photo of (L-R) Kirsten Bording Collins, Barbara Schmidt-Abbey and Joan O’Donnell

They hammer home that we are indeed living in a much cited ‘VUCA’ world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). The issues evaluation and evaluators are faced with are often characterised as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973), or even worse, as ‘super-wicked problems’ (as referred to in Hans Bruyninckx’s keynote speech at the conference). Instead of simple, solvable problems, we are dealing with…