FGDs mean groups with focus & discussion!

This year again, I feel privileged to serve on a panel of senior evaluators who advise a multilateral donor on evaluation approaches and methods. And this year again, I feel saddened by the widespread neglect of qualitative data collection. All evaluations I have reviewed (cumulatively, I have reviewed hundreds…) include at least some elements of qualitative data collection – key informant interviews (KIIs), for example, or focus group discussions (FGDs). Even in (quasi-) experimental setups that rely on large standardised surveys, qualitative data are used to build questionnaires that resonate with the respondents, or to deepen insights on survey findings.

We need good data for good evaluations. Too often, the KII and FGD guides I see appended to evaluation reports are not likely to elicit good data: They are worded in abstract language (some evaluators don’t even seem to bother translating highly technical evaluation questions into questions that their interlocutors can relate to), and they contain way too many questions. I have seen an interview guide listing more than 50 questions for 60-90-minute interviews. That won’t work. A FGD guide with 20 questions for a 2-hour discussion with 12 persons won’t work, either. You can gather answers to 20 questions within two hours, but they will come from just one or two participants and there won’t be any meaningful discussion. Discussion is the whole point of a FGD – you want to hear different voices!

In my practice, I like to work with smaller focus groups – about 3-8 persons – and I count about 1-3 questions per hour, plus time for a careful introduction. The questions should be phrased in a way that makes it easy to discuss them – avoid jargon, because jargon spawns jargon, often hard to interpret. The Better Evaluation library provides a helpful video that explains key principles of FGDs, even though I would be careful about mixing women and men in the some settings. In international cooperation, it has become common practice to organise separate focus groups with female and male participants respectively, to avoid male voices dominate, and to surface issues that people don’t like to discuss in front of representatives of other genders. You also need to consider other aspects of participants‘ identity – social class, for example – to obtain reasonably homogenous focus groups. And you could try to find a way of collecting data from people who don’t identify as female or male, especially when you wish to work in a fully gender-responsive (or feminist) manner. (Have a look at this week’s posts on the American Evaluation Association tip-a-day newsletter celebrating pride week!)

Back in 2019, I published a blog post on what I called classism in data collection – a widespread trend in international evaluations to hold KIIs with powerful people only, and to lump those who are supposed to ultimately draw some benefit from the evaluated project into large FGDs. I’ll repost the blog soon because I see this issue over and over again, and it is not only an inequitable practice, it also yields shoddy data. Watch this space!

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