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AbstractThis paper reviews the emergence of social programme evaluation as an important and frequently controversial topic in the United States during the last three decades. Political, practical, epistemological, and ethical Issues involved in the evaluation of social service programmes are discussed, as well as the strengths and shortcomings of a range of specific evaluative approaches and techniques. Current trends towards evaluation strategies that take greater account of the special attributes of the social services and social work practice and that produce information that is more useful to policy-makers, programme administra tors and social work practitioners than has been true in the past are identified. Some cautionary remarks are included about the dangers of overemphasizing ‘hard’ quantitative methodologies, goal attainment, and efficiency at the expense of alternative approaches that can produce other and sometimes more appropriate indicators of programme perform ance and results. This paper examines the evolution over three decades in the United States of efforts to evaluate social programmes, social services and social work practice. Some lessons that can be drawn from the failures and successes of this experience are suggested and the strengths and weaknesses of various evaluative strategies and techniques are discussed.