When a Final Report Isn't Enough
Writers often say the ending of a book is the hardest part to write. And, as part of Results for Development’s Evaluation and Adaptive Learning team, I can relate. Over the past several years, we have been working to use monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL) approaches to support partners in strengthening programs. Our goal is to generate evidence in real time and deliver it to partners in useful and actionable ways — to empower them to make evidence-informed programmatic and design decisions.
When you’re acting as an impartial evaluator, engaging only insofar as you can say whether or not a program is having an impact, a standard final report is typically sufficient. When you’re deeply engaged with supporting a partner to make design decisions, wrapping up what was accomplished and synthesizing findings is a bit trickier.
So, how do you end an engagement that is supposed to continue the process in your absence?
Our team faced this challenge in 2017 as a number of our first pilots came to an end. We learned a lot in the process and we have four suggestions to share.
1. Action briefs are a great way to distill findings into actionable recommendations for partners.
In the case of our LAUNCH Food evaluation — an adaptive learning approach to evaluating the success of a challenge fund focused on disrupting the global food system — our goal was to support the application of a network approach more effectively to both LAUNCH Food and other LAUNCH challenges. We saw an opportunity to distill findings into five topics, such as program design and measuring impact centered around key themes and observations. The briefs made our findings tangible, and toward the end of our engagement we focused on using the briefs to turn our observations into actionable next steps for our partners.
2. Empower partners to own the work from the beginning.
In the case of our adaptive learning engagements, my team’s role is often to begin by co-creating a learning agenda with our partners. We expect that implementing the agreed upon MERL strategy will frequently continue after our initial engagement with a partner is finished. For example, Worldreader had a goal of applying the design process and monitoring we used in piloting Read to Kids — a program designed to leverage respected community organizations to empower caregivers to read to their children through a mobile app library in India — to a similar effort in Jordan, using their in-house MERL capacity. We thought carefully about the best way to document and share the lessons from the India experience in a way the Worldreader team would find useful. We decided a version of a toolkit would be most effective. Unlike many of the glossy toolkits created in the international development space that can be challenging to apply and adapt, our “toolkit” wasn’t a comprehensive “how to guide,” providing a one-size-fits-all approach to carrying out this type of engagement. Instead, we designed a reference guide that included the specific processes and tools we used within India’s context. Coming together with the partner at the end of our engagement to reflect on learning and how to operationalize the toolkit proved to be a critical step to ensuring a smooth handover.
3. Synthesize the process as a springboard for direct partner action.
In Sierra Leone, Rising Academy Network hoped to test and scale their low-fee private school network’s literacy program to ensure students were receiving targeted support as they worked toward reading on grade level. Sharing the tools that were used to monitor progress and change, explaining the processes that were undertaken to rollout the three components of the literacy program and, most importantly, synthesizing the overall learnings from the engagement empowered them continue to scale. We helped the partner develop a revised implementation plan at a final workshop and handed over the tools that were necessary to implement the program.
4. Prioritize time together to work through findings and don’t be shy about sharing.
We believe strongly in holding closeout workshops to spend time with the partner reflecting on the engagement and findings, and helping them create a plan of action going forward. Budget for closeout workshops when drafting contracts, and you will be grateful for the time together to discuss and plan for the road ahead. If possible, allow for “learning checks” along the way to pause and reflect on immediate findings in addition to a more comprehensive closeout workshop. In order to wrap up our Partnership Schools for Liberia (currently known as the Liberia Education Advancement Program) engagement — in which we developed theories of change and lean tested solutions for four private operators that recently began managing government schools — we included the four partners participating in our pilot, the full PSL consortium, the Ministry of Education in Liberia, and several other interested parties in the region in our closeout workshop.
Ultimately, different partners have different objectives for the trajectory of their program once our engagement is finished. Maybe the program wants to replicate in a new context like our partners on Read to Kids, scale the intervention like Rising Academy Network, improve implementation like PSL in Liberia, or even apply a similar framework to a new development challenge like LAUNCH Food. It’s important to recognize and understand these different paths forward early on in an engagement so that evidence provided along the way is actionable, and the closeout process and deliverables can be tailored to support these goals.
Photo © Results for Development/Sayantoni Palchoudhuri