Saturday, July 5, 2008

Passing the Sniff Test

Her email address reads: Penelope Davis, Ph.D. This may be the first clue that my future boss may be a little hung up on appearances. Other information was not forthcoming, despite a series of increasingly urgent emails. This is how I end up sitting in Starbucks one hour before the client interview, during which I am to represent myself as the Project Manager for a project about which I am remarkably vague. But $40K a year is no small incentive, especially as I’m seriously unemployed right now.

Twenty minutes later, a tall white woman comes through the doors talking animatedly into her Blackberry. She stops two feet away and despite my smile, continues to stare into the middle-distance: “No, just include it in the proposal with the other… I know, but we have to get this out today. I’ll see when I’m back in the office… Okay, bye.”
“Penelope?” She turns to me blankly, as if surprised that the only other white woman in the place should turn out to be the Program Evaluator from England.
“I need to use the restroom,” she says, pivoting on her four-inch heels.

I have to admit to feeling a little pissed off. Terribly busy people think that being terribly busy is a legitimate excuse for inconveniencing other people who obviously have less busy and therefore less-important lives.

A flash of shiny magenta blouse crosses my vision as Penelope plops down in the armchair opposite. She pauses, looking quizzically at my face, then proffers her hand. “Penelope Davis. Pleased to meet you.” I shake the outstretched hand and then wait as she rearranges her Jimmy Choo purse on the table in front of us. I know it’s Jimmy Choo because each corner has a large, shiny gold hinge emblazoned with “Jimmy Choo.” I guess the ostentatious bag serves the same purpose as the email address – lest we forget.

There is now only twenty minutes before we have to leave for the client’s office, so I start straight in with my questions: Why no parent measures?
“Well, the program is not for high-risk youth, so we wouldn’t expect behavior changes,” she answers, with the tight smile of someone who’s just been asked to deposit money into an account in Nigeria. “It’s what we call high cost, low yield data.”
“But as a parent,” I go on, refusing to be intimidated by the academic bling, “I know that any changes in my child, I’m going to notice them first. Besides, with only the staff and students as data sources, don’t we need to triangulate?” Hah! Stuff that in your Jimmy Choo!

Penelope puts her arms into her black jacket – a signal we need to leave? Preparation for a showdown? Does she have the tasseled mortarboard to match? She appears to be wearing the star from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on her jacket, or maybe it’s a hi-tech device that is even now broadcasting live to the American Evaluation Association, offering further evidence of my attempts to bring the profession into disrepute. “We’ll also be using a standard assessment tool,” she fixes me with that same cold smile, tapping her finger on the proposal document. “We have 17 research assistants we can send out to the sites.”

Seventeen research assistants? This is definitely the time to ask. “Your partner said forty thousand dollars when he first spoke to me. Am I still in the budget for the same amount?”
“Ah, yes. That’s something else we changed. You’re now in for thirty thousand.” She registers the flinch. “If that’s okay.”

But we don’t really have time to discuss whether I can coordinate this project (including the legion of research assistants) on only five hours a week, because it’s time to set off for the interview. Circling the client’s building, I wish I had paid more attention to the parking instructions. The entrance to the underground parking proclaims, “Only for the clients of the Curacao supermarket.”

I am expelled from the elevator directly into the office, in full view of the people assembled in the conference room to my right. Dr. Davis turns her head without disturbing a single perfect strand of her orange Cleopatra haircut. “I thought I was in the wrong place!” I exclaim, dumping my pile of papers on the table, “Solamente para los clientes de Curacao!” A handsome Latino man at the table looks up and smiles when he hears the Spanish. Dr. Davis seems to be suffering from indigestion. Recovering, she launches into the pitch:

“We have conducted many multi-site evaluations, including a National Youth Survey,” she says, lowering her lashes in false modesty, “and can help you achieve model program status.” Hang on! We don’t know this program warrants model program status. In fact, we know nothing at all beyond the opinion of a District Supervisor, who told Penelope the program is "good." The previous evaluation only proved that while the kids remained in the program they were kept off the streets. Amusement arcades do the same thing. But after being asked exactly how many after-school programs she has evaluated, Penelope turns to me.

“People work in social programs because they believe with all their heart and soul they are making a difference… Well, it’s certainly not for the pay!” This raises a laugh. “So I ask the staff what tells them there is a change – even if it’s a smile on a kid’s face – and help them to measure that change. I don’t believe in the approach of some academics who come in with a whole bunch of assumptions and then try to impose their framework of outcomes and measures to prove some theory, and completely miss what’s really going on. I’m not interested in publishing, I’m interested in making programs the best they can be.” The Latino man, who turns out to be the Program Director, nods his head. Penelope has become red in the face.

“Of course, we’re not going to make Louise do anything she doesn’t like,” her smile oozes like mango sorbet around the room – sweet and chilly, “That’s why we’re here! I’m not an academic, I’m a clinical psychologist, so I don’t need to publish, but,” she continues in a hushed, serious tone, “to become a model program the evaluation has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and” she looks hard at me “we have to use standard instruments in order to pass the sniff test.” Which I apparently don’t.

I spend the rest of the hour kicking myself for pitching the project all wrong, then resenting the fact that Mrs. Choo had not taken the time to prepare me. When it’s all over, the Program Director and I drop into easy conversation on our way to the door. “So you work in South Gate and Huntington Park? They’re my old stomping grounds,” I tell him.
“Yeah, we’re doing some really exciting work, organizing the parents and families.” I look at him, astounded.
“Why didn’t we talk about this during the meeting?”
“Oh that? That was just data,” he says, confirming that there are things Dr. Davis and her standard instruments will never find out.

As the elevator door closes over Penelope’s face (which still maintains the professional expressionlessness of the clinical psychologist, but only just), I am left wondering if I could ever have worked under this Over Achiever who is philosophically at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to evaluation… and fashion accessories. Then I wonder if I’m not interested in publishing after all: Godbold, L. A. (July 2008). Passing the Sniff Test: A Case Study on How Not to Win Evaluation Contracts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh I can feel the chill in the air! Yikes!

(Their loss)