What do Evaluators Mean When They Speak of “Blue Marble Evaluation”?


Over the past few years, there has been a shift towards system change approaches in evaluation. Evaluators are now speaking of “Blue Marble evaluation.” But what is it? This blog post will provide a brief answer to that question.

Coined by Michael Quinn Patton, the concept of “Blue Marble evaluation” comes from the photo of the Earth taken back in 1972 by the astronaut crew of Apollo 17 and that became known as “the Blue Marble shot.” So, Blue Marble evaluation refers to a whole-earth perspective and broad and encompassing lens applied to the evaluation world.

Blue Marble evaluation refers to a whole-earth perspective and broad and encompassing lens applied to the evaluation world.

For example, in the BC context, taking on a whole-earth or Blue Marble perspective could translate into approaching evaluation designs with clear inter-and intra-regional objectives and measures. Or it could translate into explicitly considering the implications of province-specific evaluation findings for other provinces and beyond Canada’s delimited geopolitical borders.

Blue Marble evaluators seek to think, act, and evaluate broadly. In other words, they seek to design and implement evaluations that deliberately cut across sectors and silo issues. For example, some evaluators have proposed the concept of bioregions as a Blue Marble idea to cultivate resilience to climate change. This is when a region is looked at well beyond its fixed geographic and economic boundaries and is defined instead by its natural features, and how humans and ecosystems interact. Others have taken on the difficult task of transforming the financial sector with a Blue Marble evaluation eye to work towards sustainability and well-being and promote investing in a manner that does not lose sight of the more significant, earth-sized political, sociocultural, and environmental issues of our time.

Applying a broader, Blue Marble-like lens that cuts across sectors and silo issues in BC, for instance, has taken and continues to take place when HIV, hepatitis C, and harm reduction services and programs are developed and implemented jointly. It can also occur when key stakeholders working primarily on one of those issues are brought together to the same table for strategizing shared solutions. Silo- and sector-breaking work can also occur when the sociopolitical factors shaping pressing health issues are brought together for wholesome discussion, creative strategizing, and effective advocacy.

Significantly, in Blue Marble evaluation there is a clear impetus to evaluate, design and implement for global systems change. The interest in global systems transformation comes from the realization that evaluators must think globally to face contemporary pressing issues and support the creation of a sustainable, fair, and equitable future for all. What is critical here is that unlike more conventional approaches to evaluation, Blue Marble evaluation moves away from a project-, policy-, or program-specific evaluation mentality. Instead, this type of evaluation seeks and allows for strategizing to achieve systems change.

That is to say, Blue Marble evaluations require a more expansive and different mindset: one in which evaluators are attuned to local and global interconnections, can apply systems and complexity thinking to address multifaceted issues spanning diverse regions and communities, and are tasked to engage with and evaluate the most urgent problems facing humanity, such as poverty, environmental ecosystem sustainability, and social justice. Through this all, evaluators are emerging less as end-of-project players and more as designers, implementers, and assessors of ongoing projects that feedback insights as the initiatives for global change unfold.

So, what can we do to engage more in Blue Marble evaluations?

First, it is important to remember that evaluation should continue to provide timely and useful information to guide continuous decisions.

Second, these types of evaluations demand systems and complexity thinking to be able to grapple with multi-dimensional problems, and evaluators should seek training to develop those capacities.

Lastly, given that evaluation is less of an end-of-program activity, evaluators must be bold and engage as front-end players in the design and implementation of the activity.


Learn More:

Book: Patton, Michael Quinn. 2020. Blue Marble Evaluation: Premises and Principles. New York and London: The Guilford Press. In this book, Patton describes the overarching, operating, and global system transformation principles underpinning Blue Marble evaluations.

Article: Patton, Michael Quinn. 2016. A Transcultural Global Systems Perspective: In Search of Blue Marble Evaluators.” Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation 30 (3):374-390. doi: 10.3138/cjpe.30.3.08. In this article, Patton discusses the capacities required for evaluators to undertake a shift towards global systems evaluation.

Case Study Examples: van den Berg, Rob D., Cristina Magro, and Silvia Salinas Mulder, eds. 2019. Evaluation for Transformational Change: Opportunities and Challenges for the Sustainable Development Goals. Exeter, UK: International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS). This edited volume presents a series of case studies of how to transform silo-type thinking about systems to solve the pressing challenges of our times.

Website: Blue Marble Evaluation website. This website provides a community of practice, training opportunities, and resources for those interested in learning and undertaking Blue Marble evaluations.


This post was written by Oralia Gómez-Ramírez, who has since left the PAN team. If you have questions, please contact Alfiya Battalova, Evaluation  Manager: [email protected]





Images: Earth: “The Earth Seen from Apollo 17” by Apollo 17, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Moon: “Zoom In. Zoom Out” by Simone Kneebone. In: Patton, M.Q., 2020. Blue Marble Evaluation: Premises and Principles. The Guilford Press, New York and London. Pg. 5.