The third in a short series of blogs from M&E consultant Nigel Simister which tackle learning and accountability within organisational monitoring and evaluation systems.
My last two blogs suggested that pressures exerted on M&E systems by international structures and systems have tended to distort those systems away from learning and improving, and towards accountability upwards to donors and governments; and described some key features of learning-based M&E systems that distinguish them from systems designed or run for other purposes. This blog offers some suggestions for how we might begin to bring about a change in focus within M&E systems, or at least a rebalancing, away from simple accountability and towards improvement.
Any attempt to change the status quo needs to attack the problem from two angles. With the international structures, I believe there is a clear role for intermediary organisations – such as INTRAC – to continue to push for change within the international system, even if it should prove unpopular. A start would be to reframe the accountability vs. learning debate into an accountability vs. improving debate, on the assumption that people seeing learning as a luxury may not find it quite so easy to dismiss an up-front desire and commitment to improve the services offered to poor or marginalised people.
Other endeavours may help: for example initiatives such as the Big Push Forward might yet have an impact on donor policies, whilst in the longer-term education of the Northern public on development issues might change perceptions enough to remove the need for a steady stream of simplistic, anecdotal, best-case stories of change. However, it is unrealistic to expect international structures and systems to change overnight, and we cannot afford to wait until the international environment has become more conducive before acting. It falls on us internally to do what we can to re-emphasise the learning and improving role within M&E systems.
INTRAC’s work over the past two decades has clearly shown the need for champions within organisations at the highest level possible, who can promote the use of M&E for learning and improving, even if the findings of such M&E challenge long-established assumptions or beliefs. But these champions also need to be supported by motivated and competent M&E staff with the skills to develop and run systems capable of generating appropriate learning and translating this into action on behalf of poor and marginalised people. This may well involve developing more technical excellence, especially in long-neglected areas of M&E such as developing organisational M&E systems, aggregating or summarising information across large, complex organisations, or assessing changes resulting from added-value work.
But for those of us who call ourselves M&E practitioners, it might also mean being a bit more brave – more willing to innovate and challenge the status quo; more willing to stand up against vested interests within or outside our organisations; more reluctant to promote or sanction the reporting of information we know in our hearts is not that reliable or representative; and being a bit more willing to challenge those in authority above us from our (often lowly) positions within organisational structures. Above all, it might mean remembering from time to time that there are plenty of people within organisations standing up for the interests of the organisation itself, and that our role as M&E practitioners means giving at least as much attention to the needs of poor and marginalised people as to the needs of our respective organisations. At the very least we need to be reminding ourselves and others that compliance within M&E is no guarantor of survival, as witnessed by the recent decline in funding for NGOs in many OECD countries.
This blog, and the two preceding ones, have suggested that all is not right in the world of M&E and improving, and that there is a need to tackle the problem from two different directions – to try to change international systems and structures where we can, but also to rise to the challenge from our different places within aid organisations. Maybe this is the time to be more radical – either to try to overhaul the system entirely, or to acknowledge that learning/improving and accountability need to be formally split off as completely different functions. Or we could agree that sufficient good practice exists within the sector to provide grounds for optimism, and work more slowly to try and promote change from within.
Recent conversations within and outside of INTRAC have suggested a renewed emphasis on learning within M&E systems, often seen by the strategic placing of an ‘L’ within the acronym (ALPS, MEL, LEAP). But for those of us who have been involved in M&E for a long time such emphasis does not appear particularly new or sufficiently different from what has gone before. In the past, different initiatives to promote learning within M&E have come – some have gone but, many such as PRA, outcome mapping, most significant change, appreciative enquiry, theory of change thinking, have stayed with us. None has been wholly successful in fundamentally changing the way in which most M&E systems continue to be oriented towards accountability.
If this is set to change, or has already changed, I would be delighted. But all M&E practitioners should be sceptical of any new claims, unless backed up by significant evidence. Along with doubting Thomas, who refused to believe until interview evidence was triangulated with visual observation, and who surely should be the patron saint of all M&E practitioners, I will believe it when I see it. In the meantime the struggle to improve M&E practice in order ultimately to improve the lives of the poor and marginalised needs to continue on all fronts.