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M&E: how can we enhance its perceived value?

Even when it is undeniable that more and more individuals and organizations are getting engaged in diverse types of M&E practices and systems, there is a long road to cover until this area and its members are regarded as true partners by other colleagues. In fact, many new M&E tools and systems are introduced as a response to external demand by donors who need to have a more detailed insight into how their contribution is used for better performance. Thus, I have seen dozens of team members hesitant or reluctant of this type of practices, interpreting them as an increase of their workload and a way to control what they do rather than an opportunity to learn and improve their work.

In consequence, I can never stress enough the importance of acknowledging from the very beginning which is the main driver to develop an M&E system within an organization. The real intentions and purpose behinds its development will have a clear impact in how this system is received and used later on.

Hence, when M&E officers share their frustration in terms of having their work valued and appreciated by their colleagues, I nod in recognition of this problem. Even though many of these innovative practices have been designed with initial participation from the rest of the organization (or at least part of it), the main decisions on how it looks like and how it will be implemented and used usually rely on a few people, who are more prone to proving what works or not to others than promoting a genuine culture were learning is valued and rewarded.

Still, the challenge remains and we need to start thinking about new ways of addressing it. In fact, I have been asked a while ago to help a think tank with ideas on how to promote more support to the M&E area by others. I decided to ask members of the ebpdn community about their own experiences.

Here is a synthesis of what they shared:

Recommendation #1: Involve others from the very beginning

There was large consensus about the need to start with some concrete way of consulting others about their expectations and needs even before designing the new system. This is very important in terms of laying a common ground for what is meant by M&E and its main and genuine goal/s. Also, it opens up the opportunity to identify current problems and real daily challenges experienced by staff that could be solved by M&E practices. As Molly Hamm from The DREAM Project  stated: “Staff are much less likely to be open to a new system (an externally developed “solution,” if you will) if (1) they aren’t in agreement that certain problems exist, and (2) they don’t see a new system as helping to solve those problems.

The decision to engage others bears some other interesting fruits: unexpected positive outcomes might emerge: for example, in one of the think tanks I worked with staff decided that they needed to introduce some changes in the way they design projects as a reflection of how M&E could be conducted.

Recommendation #2: Seek for champions throughout all levels

During the whole process it is crucial to have internal partners: people who understand the value of what one is proposing to do and that are willing to contribute to the process in different ways: some will be heavily involved in data collection, reporting, etc.; senior staff who are willing to move other pieces of the organizational puzzle that need to be changed so that the likelihood of success for M&E increases (e.g. communications, IT, HR, etc.); leaders who use the generated information to make strategic decisions or to further support learning by rewarding those who are open to it.

A good M&E system builds on team work.

Recommendation #3: Ensure feedback loops – reconnect and motivate people

Champions mentioned above need to be connected so as to make sure that everyone understands how his/her contribution fits into the bigger picture. When there a lot of missing links, i.e. how was the information I prepared used and by whom?

Tare Nutley from MEASURE Evaluation very clearly expressed the importance of making these connections: “One approach I find quite effective is to ensure that the individuals that contribute to the M&E system (providers, program managers, data clerks, M&E specialists, etc.) hear back from the data users as to what the data are saying and what decision makers do with the data. These feedback loops are critical to develop so that the lower levels of the health system don’t feel as though they are sending data in to a black hole. Everyone needs to know how their contribution to the M&E systems is being used so that they feel a purpose in what they are doing. Good feedback that describes what the data are saying and how they are being used in decision making often generates data use at the lower levels.”

Recommendation #4: Keep it simple, simply

I have always insisted that in this field we should abide by this motto:  “Small is beautiful”. Thus, I agree with Enrique Mendizabal´s recommendation: start small and focus on the basics first. “A few indicators, a few tools to collect them, and more emphasis on discussing the indicators and the information collected should see an increase in acceptance of M&E (…) What this approach needs is very good knowledge of the organisations. Most already produce a lot of the information that a basic M&E system needs. Sometimes all that one needs to do is connect process and store information in one place for easier access.”

By compiling these suggestions and ideas, I realized that the challenge faced by M&E people is very similar to what other areas/experts face when introducing change within an organization. Many years ago I was very lucky to take an excellent graduate course at Harvard Extension School led by Harold Langlois: Dealing with change in organizations. He artfully combined the most interesting literature on the topic with real case studies and exercises including developing an organizational change plan for a real institution. We deeply delved into change and what it means for individuals, organizations and systems (including resistances, fears, etc.). I believe this could be a very effective framework when thinking about how to better embed M&E in an organization.

My second important reflection is that we need to start talking about M,E &L (L stands for Learning) instead of just M&E. We need to build better and more solid and visible bridges from the information that M&E systems generate and how this is used in terms of critical thinking and learning, and in consequence, changing. Of course, learning would not only happen at the end but during the whole process because once it is used as the main driver for this type of efforts, the entire cycle changes: the type of information sought, the way this information is generated, who is invited and feels motivated to participate, etc.

More posts on these two reflections soon!