Being Curious and Judgemental: Inclusive Systemic Thinking for Evaluation

Anne Stephens
Ellen D. Lewis
13 December 2023
Inclusive Systemic Thinking for Evaluation
Evaluators must exercise judgment, making subjective and critical assessments. But does being “judgmental” mean losing curiosity? Can curiosity enhance the evaluator's role and is it their duty to integrate curiosity into their practice and even prioritize it?

Anne Stephens, PhD, MBA, Co-Director, Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EOE) is an Evaluation Specialist, Sociologist and Business Manager. She is the Vice President of the Australian Evaluation Society (AES) and Chaired their ‘Pathways’ committee (2019-2022), to provide professional development opportunities for members and promote evaluation as a profession. For more information: LinkedIn.

Ellen D. Lewis, PhD, MA, Co-Director, Ethos of Engagement Consulting (EOE) is an organisational, research and evaluation consultant. Ellen leads evaluation consultancies and partnerships in the Latin American and the Caribbean Region for EOE and contributes to the evaluation sector globally. She also teaches systems thinking at several universities in the United Kingdom. For more information: LinkedIn.

Evaluators play a vital role in assessing how well programs meet their goals, aiding policy decisions by collecting and analyzing data. This involves answering evaluation questions, forming conclusions, and offering recommendations. To do this, evaluators must exercise judgment, making subjective and critical assessments. But does being “judgmental” mean losing curiosity? Can curiosity enhance the evaluator's role and is it their duty to integrate curiosity into their practice and even prioritize it?

Let's dive into how Inclusive Systemic Thinking (IST) can help evaluate complex issues. When making judgments, it's crucial to explore, learn, engage, and understand deeply. We believe anyone can practice curious and inclusive thinking. However, doing this effectively requires compassion, understanding, humility, self-reflection, and cultural awareness.

Understanding Systems Thinking and Inclusive Systemic Thinking

Systems thinking is an analytical approach that looks at how things are connected within a system or across different systems. Think of a government department or a spoke in a bicycle wheel—they're parts of systems. Systems thinkers question the limits of systems and the views that shape them. For evaluators, this involves deciding what's part of an evaluation, what's not, and who should help make those decisions.

IST looks at the diverse human experiences and how we categorize people (like race, class, gender) in a connected and inclusive way. To be good at IST, curiosity is key to grasp how gender, environmental factors, and marginalized voices—both human and non-human—are linked. This approach, called the 'GEMs' Framework, brings together IST and evaluation methods. - Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender, Environments and Marginalised Voices (ISE4GEMs). 

Curiously Examining the GEMs Dimensions

Fundamentally, curiosity encourages us to develop a mutual understanding of our evaluative work.

  • Gender equality, equity, and justice, acknowledges a diverse spectrum of gender identities. Our goal is to ensure the safety of participants in projects and evaluations. Curiosity drives us to explore how gender intersects with other aspects like environments and marginalized voices. We prioritize learning from local perspectives rather than imposing preconceived notions influenced by global ideas. Embracing curiosity is essential for this in-depth exploration.
  • Environments: This dimension delves into natural landscapes, ecosystems, human habitats, and context like climate emergencies. Many “environmental”elements here can't speak for themselves. Curiosity helps find 'experts' who can speak on their behalf. These experts might include witnesses, scientists, traditional or indigenous people who intimately know a place or species and can advocate for them.
  • Marginalized voices: Judgment can stereotype and discriminate, but curiosity listens and highlights local knowledge, ideas, and values. What we learn from curiosity might be new to the system but crucial for understanding impact. This approach matters because marginalized voices, both human and non-human, are often overlooked. Our goal is to actively seek and listen to these voices while considering how they intersect with environmental and gender aspects.

Guiding Principles of Inclusive System Thinking

Whether you are working in evaluation or other development sectors, we believe anyone can be a curious inclusive systemic practitioner. But the role comes with certain practices, attributes, humility, and self-work.

  • Center the participant: Practitioners using the GEMs framework aim to amplify the voices of marginalized groups, whether human or non-human. They work inclusively and collaboratively, actively seeking to understand the nature of marginalization—its roots and how those affected define it. Instead of assuming knowledge upfront, practitioners engage participants in defining terms and how they represent the context. This involves conversations, attentive listening, and understanding how communities perceive discrimination or prejudice. For instance, in one project in Central America, women artisans from a village collectively decided to exclude women without children, believing that only mothers required extra income.
  • Values, Positionality, and Care: Practitioners think about their beliefs and experiences of privilege and oppression. ISE4GEMs prioritizes care as a core value to support emotional intelligence and sustainable practices. Practitioners follow the principle of doing no harm by reflecting on their actions and considering how they might impact local participants. For instance, when speaking with female survivors of domestic violence, interviews are done with care, discretion, and ideally by a trusted female interviewer, ensuring safety is not compromised.
  • Transformative and Emergent Change: ISE4GEMs aims for lasting societal change amid global crises. It values diverse approaches and knowledge systems, challenging established ways of thinking, even those that practitioners themselves might uphold. For instance, in Central America, while working with fishmongers reliant on a lake for their livelihoods, they realized their cleaning practices were polluting the lake daily. Recognizing the lake's perspective and their community's well-being, one fishmonger changed their cleaning methods to protect the lake and encouraged others to do the same.
  • Reflexivity: In practice, it means being a curious introvert—reflecting on personal motivations, assumptions, values, and biases. How do these aspects truly impact the work's direction? Understanding power dynamics—what can or cannot be changed—and deciding what to do with this awareness is crucial. For example, in a blog, one author acknowledged the significant difference between her evaluation knowledge from a foreign country and the insights of two local evaluators. The expertise of a Western, doctoral-trained woman gave way to a more culturally competent, inclusive, and effective evaluation approach led by the local evaluators.
  • Transdisciplinary: ISE4GEMs encourages using diverse methodologies and engaging with various sources of expertise, whether formally trained or not, including local voices and diverse participants. Are we curious enough about the evaluation process to challenge our existing norms, which might prioritize knowledge not rooted in local culture? In practice, this might involve giving participants more control over the inquiry itself, allowing them to prioritize their knowledge and experiences. Participants can choose evaluation methods, engage in consultations at convenient locations like community gatherings, and analyze raw data to generate findings. We propose that participants are given the opportunity to review and confirm findings rather than evaluators solely sharing these with managers and donors.


In a world dealing with growing global inequality, evaluators face complex challenges. How can we engage respectfully when our role is to assess efforts for change? By embracing new ways of analyzing data and applying innovative approaches, we can transform the traditional evaluation model. Using IST principles within the ISE4GEMs approach, a curious mindset guides us toward a more inclusive and effective evaluation method. We navigate difficult analyses with empathetic curiosity, using the GEMs framework to explore social and environmental issues. Our focus on curiosity, self-awareness, trust, and compassion helps us address complex problems while considering our position and influence. In a world striving for fairness and sustainability, IST becomes a tool for meaningful change, advocating for human and environmental rights.


This blog was peer reviewed by: Dr. Sumita Chatterjee (Portugal), Dr Charity Limboro (Kenya), Becky Kalume (Kenya), Dr (ABD), Francesca Earp (Australia)

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