Dec 2013 – Thomas Chapel
This year, we are starting a brand new feature. AaEA wants to show how much we appreciate and value our members by highlighting the work they do as evaluators. We would like to highlight Tom Chapel, Chief Evaluation Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks to Lara Wagner for interviewing Tom for this highlight!
Tom Chapel, awarded AEA’s 2013 Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Government Evaluation Award
Can you tell me about your background and what lead you to the career path of Chief Evaluation Officer at CDC?
I was in the sociology PhD program and wanted to do something more applied and got a Masters, employment dried up so I got a MBA. I started in healthcare but missed dealing with social problems and big issues so I applied to be a project manager at Macro, which was closer to what I wanted to do, and worked on CDC projects. In 2000 they created an internal CDC position for evaluation; I’ve been there since.
What do you believe should be the role of evaluation in government and how does that differ from other entities like nonprofits?
There’s increasing emphasis on using evaluation for accountability and proving attribution. It’s hard because of complex environments but we should understand what people are doing long-term and focus on what they’re doing during programs. Evaluation needs to live in both worlds; that’s particularly true in government. There’s a lot of attention on using rigorous models, proving that you cause downstream impact, but evaluation has to be more than that. No one expects a nonprofit to move morbidity and mortality; the expectation in government is that programs will make big, public outcomes. The role of the evaluator becomes important in understanding steps. In government you want to understand the intermediate outcomes because they count as milestones in making contributions on projects you are accountable for.
What career advice do you have for someone starting out in evaluation?
Evaluation isn’t a discipline where you have to come out of a certain program. The best thing to do is get some experience in the field, do strategic planning and evaluation projects either as a volunteer or case study. A strong methods background can’t hurt; standard social science methods are usually plenty. Get a balance of quantitative and qualitative skills. At CDC the most effective evaluators live where planning, performance measurement or evaluation live together.
Where do you see evaluation going in the future?
Every so often the interest in experimental models reoccurs. That’s happening now with randomized control trials, proving cause, etc. Conversely, at CDC we have a lot of traction from emphasis on evaluation aligning with program improvement. We try to understand the parts of a program that cause your results to stall. As long as people are paying attention to how to evaluate and how to make programs better, we will have an important role.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? My dad was a carpenter and didn’t want us to do that. I just knew I wanted to wear a suit and make $10,000 a year. I always wanted to be in a helping profession, to be involved in influencing structures. Now I don’t want to wear a suit, that idea is appalling, but I can trace it all back to that desire to do a “thinking job” when I was a kid.
Highlight an AaEA member!
If you would like to nominate yourself or another AaEA member to be highlighted (or to be an interviewer), please contact email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org Note: You do not need to be an expert in your field in order to be highlighted—just a paid AaEA member! We would love to highlight evaluators in various stages of their careers (e.g., students, new evaluators, seasoned evaluators).
Link to this page: http://atl-eval.org/?p=896