by Yaquta Fatehi, Program Manager of Performance Measurement at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan; and Heather Esper, Senior Program Manager of Performance Measurement at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.
At MERL Tech DC 2018, we — Yaquta Fatehi and Heather Esper — led a session titled “Integrating MERL with program design: Presenting an approach to balance your MERL strategy with four principles” The session focused on our experience of implementing this approach.
The challenge: There are a number of pressing tensions and challenges in development programs related to MERL implementation. These include project teams and MERL teams working in silos and, just as importantly, leadership’s lack of understanding and commitment to MERL (as leadership often views MERL only in terms of accountability). And while there are solutions developed to address some of these challenges, our consortium, the Balanced Design, Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (BalanceD-MERL) consortium (under U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) MERLIN program) saw that there was still a strong need for integration of MERL in program design for good program management and adaptive management. We chose four principles – relevant, right-sized, responsible, and trustworthy – to guide this approach to enable sustainable integration of MERL with program design and adaptive management. Definitions of the principles can be found here.
How to integrate program design and MERL (a case example): Our consortium aimed to identify the benefits of such integration and application of these principles in the Women + Water Global Development Alliance program. The Alliance is a five year public/private partnership between USAID and Gap, Inc., and four other non-profit sector partners. The Alliance draws upon these organizations’ complementary strengths to improve and sustain the health and well-being of women and communities touched by the apparel industry in India. Gap, Inc. had not partnered with USAID before and had limited experience with MERL on a complex program such as this which consisted of multiple individual activities or projects implemented by multiple partners. The BalanceD-MERL consortium’s services were requested during the program design stage, to develop a rigorous program-wide, high-level, MERL strategy. We proposed co-developing the MERL activities with the Women + Water partners as listed in the MERL Strategy Template (see Table 1 in the case study shared below) – that has been developed by our consortium partner – Institute for Development Impact.
Our first step was to co-design the program’s theory of change with the Women + Water partners to establish a shared understanding of what was the problem and how it was to be addressed by the program. We used the theory of change as a communication asset that helped bring a shared understanding of the solution among partners. We found that through this process we also identified gaps in the program design that could then be addressed, in turn making the program design stronger. Grounded by the theory of change in order to be relevant and trustworthy, we co-developed a risk matrix, which was one of the most useful exercises for Gap, Inc. because it helped them place judgment on their assumptions and identify risks that needed to be frequently monitored. Following this, we co-identified the key performance indicators and associated metadata using the Performance Indicator Reference Sheets format. This exercise, done iteratively with all partners, helped them understand the tradeoffs between trustworthy and right-size; helped to ensure the feasibility of data collection and that indicators were right-sized and relevant; verified that methods were responsible and not placing unnecessary burden on key stakeholders; and confirmed that data was trustworthy enough to provide insights on the activity’s progress and changing context.
In order to integrate MERL with the program design, we closely co-created these key components with the partners. We also co-developed questions for a learning agenda and recommended adaptive management tasks such as quarterly pause and reflect sessions so that leadership and program managers could make necessary adaptations to the program based on performance data. The consortium was also tasked with developing the performance management information system.
Findings: Through this experience, we found that the theory of change can serve as a key tool to integrate MERL with program design and it can form the foundation on which to build remaining MERL activities. Additionally, indeed, MERL can be compromised by an immature program design that has been informed by an incomplete needs assessment. For all key takeaways from this experience of applying the approach and principles as well as action items for program and MERL practitioners and key questions for leadership, please see the following case study.
All in all, it was an engaging session and we heard good questions and comments from our audience. To learn more or if you have any questions on the approach, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This publication was produced by William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan (WDI) in collaboration with World Vision (WV) under the BalanceD-MERL Program, Cooperative Agreement Number AID-OAA-A-15-00061, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This study/ report/ audio/ visual/other information/ media product (specify) is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the USAID. The contents are the responsibility of the William Davidson Institute and World Vision and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.