The Danger of Ignoring Context in Program and Evaluation Design

Inspire to Change
7 min readJan 18, 2024

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

In program and evaluation design, the significance of context is often underestimated, if not outright ignored. This oversight, whether intentional or not, can have profound implications. In fields where “evidence-based best practices” are revered, the nuanced realities of varied environments and populations are frequently overlooked in favor of a standardized approach. However, this one-size-fits-all mentality can lead to ineffective, and sometimes harmful, outcomes.

In this blog post, I talk about the critical role context plays in shaping successful interventions and evaluations, and I offer a strategy to make this task more manageable, and I offer a more nuanced, adaptable framework that respects the unique characteristics of each setting and population.

The Consequence of Overlooking Context in Research, Evaluation, and Programming

In the realm of complexity theories, a core tenet is that causality is an elusive concept, not discernible in advance and, sometimes, only somewhat knowable in hindsight. This theory challenges the conventional understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, emphasizing that causal connections and patterns are invariably unique, shaped by intricate interactions within specific timeframes and contexts. This perspective underscores the idea that attempting to predict outcomes or make sense of past events requires an in-depth appreciation of the context involved.

But, in many models for designing programs and their corresponding evaluations, context is often relegated to a mere footnote. This (intentional?) oversight is particularly evident in the field of evaluation, where the emphasis frequently lies on “evidence-based best practices.” Such practices, rooted in the belief that there is a singular optimal approach to an issue, advocate for the replication of proven methods. However, this notion is fundamentally flawed.

Consider, for example, a program in Washington DC that successfully prevents middle school students at risk of incarceration from entering the justice system. Its effectiveness leads to it being hailed as a “best practice.” Later, an…



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