More often than not, debates within some donor circles and those of implementers revolve around the Big Question- What is the impact of your work? You heard that right- on the hot seat! This even gets more complicated for organisations working around influencing social, policy and practice change. This is a complex and contested environment that usually attracts challenges right from the design of the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) system.
MEL System, for what?
To some, it’s both a matter of choice and capacity-building. Many institutions are victims of ‘cost cutting’ through distribution of the MEL functions among the various staff. Though the choice depends on your context, cheap is very expensive in the long run. It’s either you are doing the right thing, or doing things right. Some organisations especially in the Civil Society are grappling with the challenge of implementing MEL functions. Some argue that they are still small in size and operate on a shoestring budget. Well that argument would only work up until you forced to answer the Big Question:
What is the impact of your work?
A good MEL system is premised on three key points: a) The culture and context of the organisation; b) the theory of change and c) Learning moments (where practical learning and adaptation occurs). But very important to note is for whom the MEL system works. Answering this question is the magic bullet to customising a MEL system that works for you (as an organisation).
The culture of the organisation provides an environment for the performance of MEL functions. This would facilitate the customisation of the system that suits the nature and demands of the organisation. Leadership support from the senior management team promotes ownership and facilitates mainstreaming of MEL functions among the greater team of the organisation. A Theory of Change (ToC) defines all the building blocks required to bring about a long-term goal1 and the first step to the operationalisation of the Strategic Plan.
Clarity on the long-term goals, identification of measurable or observable indicators of success and formulation of realistic assumptions are preconditions for a good Theory of Change. The MEL system is therefore derived from the Theory of Change. It is one of the most relevant planning tools for a complex social change programme. Policy influence and advocacy for example operates in a dynamic and unpredictable environment. To keep abreast of developments in this sector, frequent reviews of assumptions and intervention strategies needs to be factored in, to facilitate the realisation of the long-term goal.
Learning moments are the retention of information for future references including tacit knowledge. This depends on adaptive strategies that facilitate practical learning. The culture of curiosity is the first step to creation of a learning culture. This however depends on the level of institutional buy-in, and effective communication. MEL concepts should be communicated in a manner easily understood by the non-MEL practitioners. To succeed in a dynamic environment, MEL practitioners should ensure that MEL is fun! Integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the data collection, reporting and storage might attract the technologically- savvy to MEL work (without marginalising the more analogue amongst us). More innovatively is the creation of learning allies/partners within other teams. This might help break a deep- rooted organisational culture that impedes learning.
What does a functional MEL System looks like?
In no particular order, the following are characteristics of a good MEL system (this may not be totally
- Aligned MEL functions to organisational structures- Creation of a unit to oversee the functions within an organisation whose role would be to oversee all MEL related activities. In some cases, this can be outsourced and managed by external consultants.
- Adequate resources for MEL- This include both financial and human resources. Hiring employees who have adequate knowledge of MEL and motivating them to perform their roles. The technical knowledge and experience necessary to perform this role.
- Strategic partnership for MEL system- Internally or externally (membership to professional bodies), there is need to create networks to complement the organisation’s efforts. These partnerships and networks offer peer-to-peer learning and review for technical documents.
- The Theory of Change/Log frame based on the Strategic Plan- This paints the bigger picture of the long-term goal, starting with the goal in mind.
- MEL Plan- For routine Monitoring and Evaluation, a MEL Plan that clearly states the intermediate results, sets of indicators and their baselines, targets, data source, frequency of reporting and responsibility is a necessary development.
- Learning plan and objectives- These could be intentional or unintentional and can be internal or external. Development of adaptive programmes that enable knowledge retention. This sometimes is guided by sets of objectives.
- Knowledge management and documentation- Creation of a database for the storage of all MEL related data. Data audit ensures verification, reliability and validity of data. Success in the above means success in creating, sharing, using and managing the information of an organisation.
- Evaluation and Research- Evaluation is a systematic process to determine merit, worth, value or significance2. This can be at the beginning, mid-term and end-term. Interestingly though is the role of research as a key component of Evaluation. Good MEL systems ought to plan for Evaluation in advance.
So what is the answer to the Big Question?
To discuss impact is great, but that is just an end to a lengthy process. In the results chain, we are in charge of our inputs, activities and outputs. What our output is used in the medium-to-long-term to influence results is our outcomes/impact respectively. Unfortunately, this occurs outside our spheres of control.
Ironically, some donors are interested in investing heavily on a project (project funding) but not a single percentage is allocated for tracking the “what next after the implementation”. Restricting funding to project activities only is asking for ‘trouble’! What is the value of investing a million dollars in a policy round-table meeting and not allocate a single per cent to MEL work? The policy or social change occurs way after the round-table meeting and sometimes downstream. Investing in MEL is the right step in answering the big question.
Investment in MEL can save development workers from ‘wasteful expenditures’. Before asking the big question, allocate some resources in strengthening MEL system, without which the much sought for impact shall remain a mirage.
This blogpost was drafted by Reagan Ronald Ojok, the MEAL Officer at Tax Justice Network Africa. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.