This article focuses on an evaluation of the pilot implementation of the UK ‘Early Excellence’ programme, designed to improve Early Years services and achieve national impact. As with other ‘New Labour’ programmes, the evaluation approach was based on addressing the relationship between ‘context, process and outcome’; to facilitate this, nationally defined indicators were adopted through collaboration between a national evaluation team, local evaluators and local practitioners. This approach left considerable scope for interpretation and participation by local evaluators and practitioners, as they engaged in data collection and analysis. However, two major shifts later undermined the original scope: first, a shift from evaluation to performance management, and second, a shift from central practitioner participation to marginal practitioner involvement. In conclusion, we note the parallels and contrasts between this experience and others in UK public services, and propose some general learning points for similar evaluation initiatives.