Week 38: Site Visits and Observations

I’ve been reading the 2015 edition Michael Quinn Patton’s text Qualitative Designs and Data Collection. He has “ruminations” following each chapter. The ruminations are issues that “have persistently engaged, sometime annoyed, occasionally haunted, and amused” him over the last 40 years of work as a research and evaluator. His ruminations around site visits are spot-on and should be reviewed by anyone conducting field work.

A summary of Patton’s site visit ruminations:

  • Too often, experienced or ineffective evaluators are the ones sent to do site visits. For example, international projects often hire external site visitors as contract workers. The timelines announcing job postings for external site visitors are often so short, only the most inexperienced evaluators are available, which are the ones that end up doing the work.
  • Philanthropic foundations and governmental agencies often send program officers and administrative staff into the field to conduct site visits without the proper training, unclear about their scope of work, and not enough advance notice given to sites about the visit.
  • Don’t just rely on site visit data. The program knows you are visiting and are doing their best to impress you. What you see might not be a normal day. Patton says to triangulate the data. Look at multiple sources and examine the situation from multiple perspectives.
  • Sometimes sites create a “show and tell” event the day of the site visit. They want to show off their program to the evaluators and celebrate with the program staff. This causes problems though, because the evaluator doesn’t get to see the program as it really exists.
  • People doing site visits are not always trained with background knowledge of the program. They should know something about the site they are visiting, the context, and the purpose of the site.
  • Patton advocates for rethinking site visits. He sees too many problems with inexperienced, uninformed evaluators not given enough time to collect useful data. Instead, he echoes Leslie Goodyear et al. (2014) in their book Qualitative Inquiry in the Practice of Evaluation: “The responsibility of a qualitative evaluator is to leave the setting enriched for having conducted the evaluation.”

r. Patton has identified multiple issues around site visits. Have you experienced the same issues Dr. Patton has? How have you worked to rectify those issues? 


DR. EVERETT’S USEFUL TIP: Site visits are a common component of evaluations. Being prepared to conduct an observation includes learning about the site through background materials, briefings and prior experience. How do you prepare to visit a site?