M&E for Learning
The purpose of monitoring, evaluation and learning practices is to apply knowledge gained from evidence and analysis to improve development outcomes and ensure accountability for the resources used to achieve them (ADS 201.3.5).
When investing in monitoring and evaluation, USAID staff and implementing partners realize the return on this investment by tying it to learning priorities. In this sense, learning from M&E means using M&E data/information as evidence for accountability and informing decision-making for management purposes, course adjustments, and future designs. For example, monitoring data are used to track the progress of a mechanism in achieving set objectives. Evaluation is used to determine how and why results are being achieved, or not, as well as discovering unintended, unexpected, or emerging results.
It is important to remember that monitoring, evaluation, and CLA are not the end goal, but rather the means by which we achieve our development outcomes more effectively. If the knowledge we are generating through monitoring or evaluation is not yet contributing to real-time decision-making about design and implementation, we may need to take a deeper look at our M&E systems. We can also assess other aspects such as the enabling conditions and decision-making process that may hinder the effective use of analysis of monitoring data and evaluations.
Where we are in our implementation of the Program Cycle can inform our approach.
During strategic planning, project/activity design, or the beginning of mechanism implementation
Establish learning priorities. Consider the following:
- What are we trying to achieve? What are the intended results? How will we know if we have achieved those?
- What theories of change and assumptions do we need to test to ensure we achieve our intended results?
- What do we not yet know that may affect the level of our achievement?
- What do we want to learn? What additional learning activities are needed to better understand our context or development challenges?
Design M&E systems to help support learning. As we determine what our learning priorities are, we can design supporting M&E systems including:
- Methodologies: household surveys, focus groups, outcome mapping, etc.
- Data management systems: data collection, collation, analysis, and reporting
- Learning activities: context indicators, evaluations, formative research, sector reviews, reflective sessions with stakeholders, etc.
- Team structures
Document your plan. Per ADS 18.104.22.168, document your learning plans in your CDCS’s Performance Management Plan (PMP) and Project and Activity M&E and Learning (MEL) Plans.
Learn and adapt. Always remain open for any possible changes in the learning priorities or in the M&E systems to accommodate unexpected or uncontrolled circumstances.
Within existing strategies, projects, and activities
Identify existing M&E data and approaches. Once you know what you have to work with, assess the utilization of current M&E data to determine how it is being used for learning purposes. Some of the key questions to help this assessment include:
- Does the program have the right set of indicators? Who is using them? For what purpose? Are indicator data helping to understand if higher level results are being achieved?
- Are monitoring data being used to reflect performance and inform adjustments?
- Are evaluations being utilized to inform current and future programming?
- When was the last time a key decision was made based on M&E data? How often does this happen?
- Do the data provide enough evidence to validate the theory of change or any of its key programmatic assumptions?
Determine gaps and adjust PMP and MEL Plans. Identify gaps or misalignment in the M&E systems and develop an action plan to narrow the gaps, which may include revising the PMP and Project and Activity MEL plans. We can also start fresh when we plan a new strategy or design project/activity.
Be strategic and prioritize. Our M&E systems can provide vast amounts of rich information and potential for learning, but we often do not have the absorptive capacity to take it all in. We need to make deliberate choices about what learning can contribute most to our development objectives and what data will support us in that effort.
Focus on openness. If you are experiencing barriers to learning from your M&E systems, take a step back and assess where the roadblock lies. It could be a problem with the M&E system itself, or it might arise from a challenge elsewhere in your processes (e.g., decision-making protocols). The strongest learning happens when there is openness to talking about challenges and unexpected outcomes at all levels, including with implementing partners and other stakeholders.
Accountability and learning go together. You don’t have to choose between accountability and learning—they go hand in hand. Both accountability and learning are necessary and we should develop our M&E efforts to support these complementary objectives.
Build collaboration around M&E. Generating buy-in from relevant stakeholders (including different offices in USAID, implementing partners, host government, and other donors) early and often can improve our ability to adapt based on learning generated by our M&E systems. Having open conversations about the findings of our monitoring and evaluation efforts can build trust and provide a foundation for stronger collaboration.
Timeliness matters. Timely M&E activities can go a long way to informing key decision-making. Plan your M&E activities so that you have the relevant information in time and current to make critical decisions.