I recently spent two days with Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) officers from the Southern and East African region in a workshop aimed at improving practical monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) skills. Reflecting on our discussions and the lessons learned with participants and the grant funder (OSF, Economic Justice Program – formerly the Fiscal Governance Program), I was struck by the overwhelming need for not only practical MEL skills but the range of capacities required to address the multi-level challenges they face. What emerged for me is that there are at least three core competencies or capacities that M&E practitioners in the accountability sector require to be effective in the work they do.
1. Practical MEL capacities and skills.
The accountability context is constantly changing and adapting to the eco-system in which it operates. The workshop participants all acknowledged that in order to best serve their organisations, beneficiaries and stakeholders, keeping up to date with new trends in MEL was essential. These are the skills to plan, carry out, report on and learn from monitoring and evaluation within organisations. This capacity building is important because MEL practices and processes are continuously developing and improving based on lessons from across the globe.
Practical skills are essential, but perhaps most importantly here is the capacity to convey the importance of learning as an integral part of practical M&E activities. This means being able to engage with colleagues on issues such as why it is important to continuously learn, what does continuous learning mean, and who should be learning. “Organisational learning stands at the heart of adapting to changing contexts” (Davies, 1998). Thus, creating an enabling environment for learning is crucial to allow stakeholders to reflect on, use, and share lessons in a transparent and honest manner. “Adaptive learning, therefore, entails the establishment of formal and informal spaces of reflection to bring together partners and different levels of management” (Desai, Maneo, Pellfolk & Schlingheider 2018).
2. Capacity to effectively navigate the politics of doing MEL work within their organizations.
Many of the participants indicated internal challenges in institutionalizing MEL, where M&E is about more than simply monitoring activities but about supporting improved practice and accountability to beneficiaries. This is difficult to do in an environment where NGO staff often perceive M&E as “a ‘necessary evil’, ‘burdensome’, ‘fixed’, and ‘rigid’” (Mueller-Hirth 2012: 656).
In an environment where MEL is regarded as something that slows delivery rather than improving delivery, the skills to manage those perceptions are important. This requires skills in lobbying, persuasion and capacity building within an organisation. What became evident during the MEL workshop was that many of the participants were not confident in their ability to navigate the politics of MEL within their organisations. While these are often not considered necessary skills for an M&E officer, these skills are essential to ensure sustainable interventions in the accountability sector. Roper and Petit argue that “if we are truly committed to poor communities and the potential of the grassroots to move a development agenda forward, we have to make the necessary investments in time, resources and experimentation with innovative learning methodologies to ensure bottom-up learning, mutual accountability and a people-driven, rather than donor-dominated, development practice” (Roper & Petit 2002: 269).
The skills required to ensure that organisations develop this kind of attitude towards learning include being able to get buy-in from management, project staff, and donors. This ‘political’ work could be the difference between being a learning organisation or not. “While all organisations learn to a greater or lesser extent, what distinguishes learning organisations from other organisations is their ability to continually expand their respective capacities to create their future or learn and transform themselves” (Thomas & Allen 2006: 125).
3. Capacity to navigate MEL requirements specific to the accountability sector.
It was clear during the workshop that it is sometimes easy to confuse shifting strategies required to achieve a goal with shifting actual goals in order to accommodate changes in context. It requires particular skills for M&E officers to not only recognise that distinction but also be able to communicate that with project staff who may not see it themselves. This comes back to the capacity mentioned above and the skills required to manage ‘political’ situations at the organisational level. “Adaptability is not only the ability to change but more specifically to adjust structure and processes to specific environments” (Kypengren 2017: 15).
M&E officers are required to have the skills to revise M&E systems to accommodate contextual and organisational shifts. These skills are hard to come by. They require an in-depth knowledge of M&E systems, an understanding of the context and of the sector in which you are working. M&E systems, which are often adapted, must remain meaningful to the project. An M&E Officer must know what elements of the system should and should not change to accommodate shifts.
Beyond adaptability, working in the accountability sector requires M&E frameworks that are participatory, beneficiary-driven, donor-compliant, use mixed methods of data collection, promote sustainability and increasingly promote learning and reflection as integrated elements. It requires M&E that is integrated into all aspects of project and programme work and requires a mindset that goes beyond practical skills to thinking holistically about how MEL can improve practice and achieve organisational goals.
The question then, is where do M&E practitioners in the accountability sector acquire these capabilities and skills? In order to build the capacities mentioned above and foster a shift in how MEL is conceptualized and practiced within the sector, M&E practitioners require a network of support which will promote peer-learning, practical training, conceptual engagement with MEL issues, practices and processes, and sustain the building of different, multi-level capacities. This network requires not only resources from donors and partners, but also commitment from organisations within the sector to promote these capacities and allow them to flourish. This not only supports the work of M&E practitioners, but by doing so, organisations recognise the importance of MEL in ensuring improvement in their own practice, but also “with the explicit intention of challenging standard practice and/or dominant paradigms” (Roper & Petit 2002: 269).
Desai, H., Maneo, G., Pellfolk, E. and Schlingheider, A. (2018) Managing to Adapt: Analysing adaptive management for planning, monitoring, evaluation, and learning. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/handle/10546/620446
Kypengren, F. (2017) Master thesis in Development studies, Department of Government, Uppsala University. pp. 66
Mueller-Hirth, N. (2012) If You Don’t Count, You Don’t Count: Monitoring and Evaluation in South African NGOs. Development & Change Volume43, Issue3 Pages 649-670
Roper, L. & Pettit, J. (2002) Development and the Learning Organisation: An introduction, 12:3-4, 258-271, https://doi.org/10.1080/0961450220149654
Thomas, K. & Allen, S. (2006) “The learning organisation: a meta‐ analysis of themes in literature”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 13 Issue: 2, pp.123-139, https://doi.org/10.1108/09696470610645467
Dr. Vanesa Malila serves as the head of the Advocacy Impact Programme at Public Service Accountability Monitor.