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Unpacking M&E with Dr. Kanyamuna: improving M&E systems: selecting results ‘Targets’

I cannot think of any development undertaking that lacks performance indicators, baseline data and targets, yet it succeeds! Thus, it is the essence of this column to unpack parameters that define success fundamentals in development theory and practice. Today, I continue to provide insights on implementing thriving monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems with a deliberate focus on selecting development results ‘targets’. This is a topical issue in any development intervention that seek to track, measure and increasingly improve what it does to the satisfaction of stakeholders and beneficiaries. My effort is to make the understanding as simplistic as possible. Before I proceed, A Happy 57th Independence Anniversary to every fellow Zambian and to every Zambian friend!

A baseline is the situation before a programme or activity begins. It is the starting point for results monitoring. The target is what the situation is expected to be at the end of a programme or activity.
A thorough analysis of the key factors influencing a development problem complements the development of baseline data and target setting. Targets are based on known resources (financial and organisational) plus a reasonable projection of the available resource base over a fixed period of time. Targets are interim steps on the way to an outcome and eventually to a longer term goal, an impact. It is crucial to already mention that each indicator is expected to have only one target over a specified time frame. This makes comparison and measurement over time manageable.

Definition of Targets: A target is a specified objective that indicates the number, timing and location of that which is to be realised. In essence, targets are the quantifiable levels of the indicators that a country, society, or organisation wants to achieve by a given time. For example, one target might be “all families should be able to eat two meals a day, every day, by 2030”. One method to establish targets is to start with the baseline indicator level, and include the desired level of improvement (taking into consideration available resources over a specific time period, for example, 36 – 48 months), to arrive at the performance target. In so doing, the starting point will be known, as will the available resources to make progress toward that target over a particular period of time. This will give the target performance.

Factors to Consider When Selecting Performance Indicator Targets

There are a number of important factors to consider when selecting performance indicator targets. One factor is the importance of taking baselines seriously. There must be a clear understanding of the baseline starting point; for example, an average of the last three years’ performance, last year’s performance, average trend, data over the past six months, and so forth. In other words, previous performance should be considered in projecting new performance targets. One might observe how an organisation or policy has performed over the previous few years before projecting future performance targets.

Another consideration in setting targets is the expected funding and resource levels – existing capacity, budgets, personnel, funding resources, facilities, and the like -throughout the target period. This can include internal funding sources as well as external funding from bilateral and multilateral donors/cooperating partners. Targets should be feasible given all of the resource considerations as well as organisational capacity to deliver activities and outputs. Most targets are set annually, but some could be set quarterly or even for five years like in the case of our National Development Plans (NDPs). Thus, others could be set for longer periods. However, setting targets more than three to five years forward is not advisable. There are too many unknowns and risks with respect to resources and inputs to try to project target performance beyond three to five years. In short, be realistic when setting targets.

The political nature of the process also comes into play. Political concerns are important. What has the government or administration promised to deliver? Citizens have voted for a particular government based on articulated priorities and policies that need to be recognised and legitimised in the political process. Setting targets is part of this political process, and there will be political ramifications for either meeting or not meeting targets. Setting realistic targets involves the recognition that most desired outcomes are longer term, complex, and not quickly achieved. Thus, there is a need to establish targets as short-term objectives on the path to achieving an outcome.

So how does an organisation or country set longer-term strategic goals to be met perhaps 10 to 15 years in the future, when the amount of resources and inputs cannot be known? Most governments and organisations cannot reliably predict what their resource bases and inputs will be 10 to 15 years ahead. The answer is to set interim targets over shorter periods of time when inputs can be better known or estimated. Between the baseline and the desired results [say an outcome], there may be several milestones [interim targets] that correspond to expected performance at periodic intervals. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a 15-year time span just as the MDGs had. While these long-term goals are certainly relevant, the way to reach them is to set targets for what can reasonably be accomplished over a set of three- to five-year periods. The aim is to align strategies, means, and inputs to track progress toward the SDGs over shorter periods of time with a set of sequential targets. Targets could be sequenced: target one could be for years one to three; target two could be for years four to seven, and so on.

Flexibility is important in setting targets because internal or external resources may be cut or otherwise diminished during budgetary cycles. Reorientation of the programme, retraining of staff, and reprioritisation of the work may be required. This is an essential aspect of public management. If the indicator is new, be careful about setting firm targets. It might be preferable to use a range instead. A target does not have to be a single numerical value. In some cases it can be a range. For example, in 2017, one might set an education target that states, “by 2021, 80 to 85 per cent of all students who graduate from secondary school will be computer literate”. It takes time to observe the effects of improvements, so be realistic when setting targets. Many development and sector policies and programmes will take time to come to fruition. For example, environmental reforestation is not something that can be accomplished in one to two years.

Finally, it is also important to be aware of the political games that are sometimes played when setting targets. For example, an organisation or government may set targets so modest or easily achieved that they will surely be met. Another game that is often played in bureaucracies is to move the target as needed to fit the performance goal. Moving targets causes problems because indicator trends can no longer be discerned and measured. In other cases, targets may be chosen because they are not politically sensitive. Aluta continua (struggle continues) for a Zambia and Africa thriving on realistic performance ‘targets’ in our development frameworks.

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: vkanyamuna@unza.zm

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