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Interview with Penny Hawkins

February 23, 2016

Penny Hawkins

Head of Evaluation, U.K. Department for International Development

A favorite book:
Just Kids, American singer-songwriter Patti Smith’s memoir about her early years in New York and her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe.


At university, Penny Hawkins thought about a career as a psychologist. That’s what she was studying at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. What about becoming an evaluator? It didn’t cross her mind then. Besides, she didn’t know what an evaluator was. Then fate intervened.

Today, Hawkins is a public sector evaluation guru – serving as Head of Evaluation at the Department for International Development, the U.K. department in charge of administering overseas aid. Hawkins joined the department in 2013, having come from the Rockefeller Foundation, where she was an evaluation specialist. The Department for International Development has played a huge role in the Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund’s own history. It funded SIEF’s creation in 2012 and the fund is now supporting 63 impact evaluation projects in more than 30 countries, among them some two dozen of the world’s poorest.  We spoke with Hawkins by Skype about her own history, why impact evaluation matters, and the results that keep her up at night. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


How did you get into impact evaluation?

I didn’t wake up one day and say: ‘I want to be an evaluator.’ I don’t think I even knew what an evaluator was at that point. I studied psychology at university and I began doing social research work, mainly in the government sector. There, I saw a growing demand for monitoring and evaluation across public-sector organizations. Basically, I moved into this area because it was where the jobs were. I changed careers for practical reasons as well as an interest in evaluation as an emerging discipline.

How did you get up to speed in your newly chosen field?

I had studied social sciences and built on that. Like many people in evaluation, I learned by doing. I also studied on a master’s course in evaluation at the University of Melbourne. While at home with a young baby, I did a post-graduate course in information technology, which at the time was a rapidly growing field.  Today, of course, the use of IT in evaluation has taken off. So once I was on the evaluation track one thing just led to another at a time when there were increasing opportunities in the field.

What do you like most about impact evaluation?

Because I work in international development, I like that we never look at evaluating just one thing. You have to stretch across all fields of human existence: education, health, livelihoods, the environment, agriculture….. It’s very challenging and always interesting.

Why is impact evaluation important in the broader development world?

Impact evaluation gives us a way to learn more quickly whether what we’re doing is actually doing any good. Without impact evaluation, it’s going to take us an awful long time to figure that out.

Since 2010, impact evaluation has played a more central role in contributing to the evidence informing policy and program decisions, and DFID has sought to embed impact evaluations more firmly within programs. Can you tell me more about that?

Since 2010 there has indeed been a much stronger push on the use of impact evaluation in DFID. Basically, it tells us whether or not what we’ve done has had the expected effects. By contrast, we previously used the more traditional type of evaluation where you do an evaluation once a program is several years down the track or after it’s completed.  It’s very difficult to link that type of evaluation into decision making and ongoing learning.

How does SIEF fit in with DFID’s goals?

SIEF has provided a really significant contribution to knowledge in the sectors in which those impact evaluations are done. That knowledge accumulates so that we have a really robust body of evidence on which to base our development interventions.

What areas of development need more evaluation?

We’ve got an increasing number of humanitarian crises going on around the world and while we know something about how to implement programs, we know less about their impact. There’s work to be done there.

What keeps you up at night with your job?

We’ve put a lot of emphasis on producing evaluations: We know how to do that. But how do we ensure that the evidence that’s produced is being used in decision making? Getting people to learn from and use evaluations is still a challenge.  I’m also concerned about whether people actually give it serious consideration – particularly when the findings are uncomfortable.

What do you do when the results are—as you say—uncomfortable?

Evaluations are not public relations exercises. They’re robust analyses of how things are going. An evaluation is going to produce hard messages and that’s an opportunity for learning and improvement. Ideally, I’d like to see people eagerly use an evaluation regardless of whether it delivers good news or not-so-good news.

What has been one of the more gratifying evaluations?

The Government of Zambia introduced a program giving pregnant mothers low cost “Mama Kits,” provided they deliver in a health facility. The kits contain nappies, baby blankets, that type of thing. DFID (through the Clinton Health Access Initiative) funded an impact evaluation that examined whether the kits increased the proportion of women in rural areas giving birth in health facilities. This rigorous and rapid impact evaluation found that Mama Kits were a cost-effective intervention Based on the results, the government scaled up use of Mama Kits.

What do you read when you travel?

I like to read autobiographies, particularly female autobiographies. The last one was Patti Smith’s most recent autobiography, M Train. I also read her earlier one, Just Kids, which I really enjoyed. It was about her early times in New York when she was with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

What do you pack in your suitcase when you’re traveling for work?

Very little: I only ever have carry-on these days. I’ve given up checking bags (to get out of the airport quickly and avoid lost baggage). I’ll pack a change of clothes that will do me for five days. If I’m staying longer I’ll do the laundry. I take a laptop, my iPhone, a small medical pack and noise-canceling headphones for the plane which I find help to reduce jet lag.

How do you decompress in your spare time?

Music: I go to a lot of live gigs. Not that big stadium stuff. These are small venues featuring up-and-coming artists. I like indie, blues, soul, punk, reggae, chamber music, jazz. … I’ve got very eclectic tastes.

Let’s jump back to your work. What motivates you every day?

It’s quite simple. Even after 25 years in the field, I still think evaluation has a huge potential to contribute to development across the world. You’re a part of what makes the world better for people.