ONE of the challenges in building stronger monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems is the failure to identify the existing gaps in current systems. The lack of thorough diagnostic processes to appreciate what was working, what was not working and finding out the leading reasons forms the major problem. It is my contention that institutions who seek to build and sustain good M&E systems must take the initial requirement of undertaking a readiness assessment which will identify specific areas of improvement and replication. Experience has shown that many organisations have embarked on creating M&E systems without first diagnosing the current situation. As a result, it becomes very expensive since issues of need are not holistically assessed and sequenced.
We know that a thriving M&E system has many components, each contributing to the overall performance of the system. For example, aspects of M&E policy, financing, personnel, skills, technology, data needs and methodologies, performance indicators, use of M&E information, stakeholders and their coordination all need to be clearly understood at the beginning. Any institutional M&E system has a ‘supply side’ and ‘demand side’ components and both aspects need to critically diagnosed and analysed. If readiness assessments are not conducted, M&E systems are pursued devoid of the needed direction. Thus, I implore all development agencies, including governments to invest in initial assessments to determine the positive practices as well as gaps that need to be improved.
A readiness assessment is the first critical aspect that needs to be considered when building any strong and sustainable M&E system. Likened to the construction of a building, the readiness assessment stage represents an important part, beneath the ground, not seen, yet critical in holding all that is above it. The focus is on undertaking a thorough assessment of an organisation’s current status in terms of understanding, capacity, and use of existing M&E arrangements. The readiness assessment is therefore the analytical framework on which the holistic status of an organisation’s M&E capacity is determined and a plan for improvement is drawn and implemented. Therefore, the undertaking of a readiness assessment is not intended to examine whether an organisation may develop an institutional M&E system, but to assess the current status of that organisation’s M&E arrangements.
To that extent, a readiness assessment usually considers such aspects as existing organisational, political, technical, policy, legislation and cultural factors and contexts. In other words, a readiness assessment addresses issues such as whether M&E champions were present, the barriers threatening the creation and building of M&E systems, ownership issues and who was likely to oppose the systems. These complexities and nuances of the wider organisational contexts are usually ignored, yet are critical for the rest of the preceding aspects. Many approaches recommend governments and organisations to go straight into building systems for M&E, disregarding the critical step of readiness assessment. Thus, without first taking stock of what is working and what is not leads many development agencies into building systems that fail to give expected information, thereby becoming redundant and unsustainable in the long run.
Further, the readiness assessment process is explicit in what it aims to achieve. This stage advances a strong argument against most experts, who look only at the ‘what’ questions: for instance, what are the goals? What are the indicators? Such experts forsake the critical ‘why’ questions, for example, why do we want to measure something? Why is there a need in a particular institution to think about these issues? Why do we want to embark on building sustainable results-based M&E systems? It is because of these pertinent ‘why’ questions on which the readiness assessment effort is premised. There is more work to actualise this kind of objective, yet the results of such efforts are key to the development of a successful results-based M&E system.
Related to the needs assessment requirement, agreeing on which outcomes to monitor and evaluate is another important aspect. Governments and other agencies implement development interventions with the aim of achieving results that impact citizens’ living standards positively. Otherwise, without being certain of the intended outcomes, institutional efforts would not be challenged for quality assurance by stakeholders. In ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, Lewis Carroll (1865) stated: ‘If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there’. In that regard, it is firstly necessary to assume that a country or organisation is in a position to move forward in building a results-based M&E system. Secondly, it is important to agree on the outcomes so that where the country or organisation is going in the long term is known.
For a given M&E system to be built and sustained, it is essential that outcome setting is done appropriately at the beginning of an intervention. In that regard, developing a theory of change becomes crucial for every project, programme or policy. Such results-based M&E systems are developed according to a deductive approach in which inputs, activities, and outputs are all derived and flow from the setting of outcomes and the ultimate desired impact(s). Indicators, baselines and targets, including all crucial elements of the performance framework are derived from and based on the setting of clear outcomes. Thus, the setting and articulation of outcomes first provides a good platform for designing measurable performance indicators.
Lastly, I come back to my initial point: lack of readiness assessments weaken the quest for stronger institutional M&E systems. Unless governments and organisations invest immensely in undertaking readiness assessments to inform efforts of building and sustaining their M&E systems, it becomes work in futility – very expensive and unsustainable. For Zambia, we need to use our limited resources prudently to strengthen the M&E function across sectors – government, private sector and civil society. Starting with a diagnostic exercise helps to identify the gaps and guides the systematic sequencing of strengthening both the supply and demand sides for our M&E systems. However, I am aware that for these ideas to be implemented, there is need for knowledgeable and committed organisational leaderships. Political will and technical expertise, while keeping eyes fixed on the goal of results-based management become prerequisites for success.
Dr Vincent Kanyamuna holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Monitoring and Evaluation and is lecturer and researcher at the University of Zambia, Department of Development Studies. For comments and views, email: firstname.lastname@example.org