How can MERL inform maturation of the blockchain?

by Mike Cooper

This is the third in a series of blogs aimed at discussing and soliciting feedback on how the blockchain can benefit MEL practitioners in their work.  The series includes: What does Blockchain Offer to MERL,  Blockchain as an M&E Tool, this post, and future posts on evaluating for trust in Blockchain applications, and integrating  blockchain into MEL practices. The series leads into a MERL Tech Pre-Workshop on September 5th, 2018 in Washington D.C.  that will go into depth on possibilities and examples of MEL blockchain applications. Register here!

Technology solutions in development contexts can be runaway trains of optimistic thinking.  Remember the play pump, a low technology solution meant to provide communities with clean water as children play?  Or the Soccket, the soccer ball that was going to help kids learn to read at night? I am not disparaging these good intentions, but the need to learn the evidence from past failure is widely recognized. When it comes to the blockchain, possibly the biggest technological innovation on the social horizon, the learning captured in guidance like the Principles for Digital Development or Blockchain Ethical Design Frameworks, needs to not only be integrated into the design of blockchain applications but also into how MEL practitioners will need to assess this integration and test solutions.   Data driven feedback from MEL will help inform the maturation of human centered blockchain solutions that mitigate endless/pointless pilots which exhaust the political will of good natured partners and creates barriers to sustainable impact.

The Blockchain is new but we have a head start in thinking about it

The blockchain is an innovation, and it should be evaluated as such. True the blockchain could be revolutionary in its impact.  And yes this potential could grease the wheels of the runaway train thinking referenced above, but this potential does not moot the evidence we have around evaluating innovations.

Keeping the risk of the runaway train at bay includes MERL practitioners working with stakeholders to ask : is blockchain the right approach for this at all?  Only after determining the competitive advantage of the blockchain solutions over other possible solutions should MEL practitioners work with stakeholders to finalize design of the initial piloting.  The USAID Blockchain Primer is the best early thinking about this process and the criteria involved.  

Michael Quinn Patton and others have developed an expanded toolkit for MERL practitioners to best unpack the complexity of a project and design a MERL framework that responds to the decision making requirements on the scale up pathway.  Because the blockchain is an innovation, which by definition means there is less evidence on its application but great potential, it will require MEL frameworks that iteratively test and modify applications to inform the scale up pathway.  

The Principles for Digital Development highlight the need for iterative learning in technology driven solutions.  The overlapping regulatory, organizational and technological spheres further assist in unpacking the complexity using tools like Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or other adaptive management frameworks that are well suited to testing innovations in each sphere.  

How Blockchain is different: Intended Impacts and Potential Spoilers

There will be intended and unintended outcomes from blockchain applications that MEL should account for.  This includes general intended outcomes of increased access to services and overall costs savings while “un-intended” outcomes include the creation of winners and losers.  

The primary intended outcomes that could be expected from blockchain applications are an increase in cost savings (by cutting out intermediaries) which results in increased access to whatever service/product (assuming any cost savings are re-invested in expanding access).  Or a possible increase in access that results from creating a service where none existed before (for example creating access to banking services in rural populations). Hence methods for measuring the specific type of cost savings and increased access that are already used could be applied with modification.  

However, the blockchain will be disruptive and when I say “un-intended” (using quotation marks) I do so because the cost savings from blockchain applications are the result of alleviating the need for some intermediaries or middlemen. These middlemen are third parties who could be some form of rent-seeker in providing a validation, accreditation, certification  or other type of service meant to communicate trust. For example, with m-Pesa,  banking loan and other services from banks were expanded to new populations. With a financial inclusion blockchain project these same services could be accessed by the same population but without the need for a bank, hence incurring a cost savings. However, as is well known in many a policy reform intervention, creating efficiencies usually means creating losers and in our example the losers are those previously offering the services that the blockchain makes more efficient.  

The blockchain can facilitate efficiencies, not elimination of all intermediary functions. With the introduction of any innovation, the need for new functions will emerge as old functions are mooted.  For example mPesa experienced substantial barriers in its early development until they began working with kiosk owners who, after being trained up, could demonstrate and explain mPesa to customers.  Hence careful iterative assessment of the ecosystem (similar to value chain mapping) to identify mooted functions (losers) and new functions (winners) is critical.

MERL practitioners have a value add in mitigating the negative effects from the creation of losers, who could become spoilers.  MERL practitioners have many analytical tools/skills that can not only help in identifying the potential spoilers (perhaps through various outcome mapping and stakeholder analysis tools) but also in mitigating any negative effects (creating user personas of potential spoilers to better assess how to incentivize targeted behavior changes).  Hence MEL might be uniquely placed to build a broader understanding amongst stakeholders on what the blockchain is, what it can offer and how to create a learning framework that builds trust in the solution.

Trust, the real innovation of blockchain

MERL is all about behavior change, because no matter the technology or process innovation,  it requires uptake and uptake requires behavior. Trust is a behavior, you trust that when you put your money in a bank it will be available for when you want to use it.  Without this behavior, stemming from a belief, there are runs on banks which in turn fail which further erodes trust in the banking system. The same could be said for paying money to a water or power utility and expecting that they will provide service, The more use, the more a relationship matures into a trustful one. But it does not take much to erode this trust even after the relationship is established, again think about how easy it is to cause a run on a bank or stop using a service provider.  

The real innovation of the blockchain is that it replaces the need for trust in humans (whether it is an individual or system of organizations) with trust in math. Just as any entity needs to build a relationship of trust with its targeted patrons, so will the blockchain have to develop a  relationship of trust not only with end users but with those within the ecosystem that could influence the impact of the blockchain solution to include beneficiaries and potential loser/spoilers.  This brings us back to the importance of understanding who these stakeholders are, how they will interact with and influence the blockchain, and their perspectives, needs and capacities.

MERL practitioners who wish to use blockchain will need to pick up the latest thinking in behavioral sciences to understand this “trust” factor for each stakeholder and integrate it into an adaptive management framework.  The next blog in this series will go into further detail about the role of “trust” when evaluating a blockchain application.  

The Blockchain is different — don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

There will inevitably be mountains of pressure go to “full steam ahead” (part of me wants to add “and damn the consequences”) without sufficient data driven due diligence and ethical review, since blockchain is the next new shiny thing.  MERL practitioners should not only be aware of this unfortunate certainty, but they also need to pro-actively consider their own informed strategy on how they will respond to this pressure. MERL practitioners are uniquely positioned to advocate for data driven decision making and provide the data necessary to steer clear of misapplication of blockchain solutions.  There are already great resources for MEL practitioners on the ethical criteria and design implications for blockchain solutions.

The potential impact of blockchain is still unknown but if current thinking is to be believed, the impact could be paradigm shifting.  Given this potential, getting the initial testing right to maximize learning will be critical to cultivating the political will, the buy-in, and the knowledge base to kick start something much bigger.  

If you’d like to discuss this and related aspects, join us on September 5th in Washington, DC, for a one-day workshop on “What can the blockchain offer MERL?”

Michael Cooper is a former Associate Director at Millennium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. State Dept in Policy and Evaluation.  He now heads Emergence, a firm that specializes in MEL and Blockchain services. He can be reached at emergence.cooper@gmail.com or through the Emergence website.

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