Learning Lessons for Evaluating Complexity Across the Nexus: A Meta-Evaluation of Environmental Projects

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William Robert Sheate
Clare Twigger-Ross
Liza Papadopoulou
Rolands Sadauskis
Owen White
Paula Orr
Richard Eales


Background: A major gap in environmental policy making is learning lessons from past interventions and in integrating the lessons from evaluations that have been undertaken. Institutional memory of such evaluations often resides externally to government, in evaluation practitioner contractors who undertake commissioned evaluations on behalf of government departments.

Purpose: The aims were to learn the lessons from past policy evaluations, understand the barriers and enablers to successful evaluations, to explore the value of different types of approaches and methods used for evaluating complexity, and how evaluations were used in practice. 

Setting: A meta-evaluation of 23 environmental evaluations undertaken by Collingwood Environmental Planning Ltd (CEP), London, UK was undertaken by CEP staff under the auspices of CECAN (the Centre for Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus – a UK Research Councils funded centre, coordinated by the University of Surrey, UK). The research covered water, environment and climate change nexus issues, including evaluations of flood risk, biodiversity, landscape, land use, climate change, catchment management, community resilience, bioenergy, and European Union (EU) Directives.

Intervention: Not applicable.

Research design: A multiple embedded case study design was adopted, selecting 23 CEP evaluation cases from across a 10-year period (2006-2016). Four overarching research questions were posed by the meta-evaluation and formed the basis for more specific evaluation questions, answered on the basis of documented project final reports and supplemented by interviews with CEP project managers. Thematic analysis was used to draw out common themes from across the case categories.

Findings: Policy context invariably framed the complex evaluations; as environmental policy has been spread beyond the responsibility of government to encompass multiple stakeholders, so policy around nexus issues was often found to be in a state of constant flux. Furthermore, an explicit theory of change was only often first elaborated as part of the evaluation process, long after the policy intervention had already been initiated. A better understanding of the policy context, its state of flux or stability as well as clarity of policy intervention’s objectives (and theory of change) could help significantly in designing policy evaluations that can deliver real value for policy makers. Evaluations have other valuable uses aside from immediate instrumental use in revising policy and can be tailored to maximise those values where such potential impact is recognised. We suggest a series of questions that practitioners and commissioners could usefully ask themselves when starting out on a new complex policy evaluation.

Keywords: evaluation; complexity; policy use; natural environment


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Sheate, W. R., Twigger-Ross, C., Papadopoulou, L., Sadauskis, R., White, O., Orr, P., & Eales, R. (2020). Learning Lessons for Evaluating Complexity Across the Nexus: A Meta-Evaluation of Environmental Projects. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation, 16(37), 1–19. Retrieved from https://journals.sfu.ca/jmde/index.php/jmde_1/article/view/641