Too often, project managers welcome evaluations with the same enthusiasm they give to an IRS audit of their tax filings. They think: Evaluations take away time from critical project implementation activities. Evaluations – if the rule of thumb is followed that five percent of project costs should be budgeted for monitoring and evaluation – consume resources that could be used to expand programs to reach more beneficiaries. And, project managers recognize, evaluation reports often end up on the shelves or in the files, never doing anybody any good. At best, to many project managers, evaluations are a necessary evil.
These views reflect a misunderstanding of the full range of contributions that evaluations can make to project management. Of course, mid-term performance evaluations can be extremely helpful in making project or program design corrections when findings point to deficiencies that need to be remedied. Final impact evaluations can also be invaluable in designing next-generation projects or reforming policies to achieve better returns from development resources. In fact, mid-course corrections of on-going projects and redesign of programs and policies resulting from findings of final project evaluations are the main reasons for budgeting time and money to conducting monitoring and evaluation activities.
But the contributions of M&E activities can be much broader than the findings they generate about project performance and impact. M&E activities play an important “carrot and stick” role in ongoing day-to-day project management dynamics as well. Specifically, three important contributions of M&E to project management operations are:
- Staff discipline from knowing that someone is watching: The fact that staff – technical and clerical alike – know they are being watched during project monitoring and measured during project evaluation introduces an element of discipline and focus into their work. It is human nature. Don’t we all brush a little harder in the weeks just before going to the dentist or exercise a bit more regularly to lose some pounds before our annual physical or before summer swimsuit season? A major part of each of these events – visits to the dentist, doctor, or the even the beach – involves monitoring or evaluation, in this case of our physical condition or appearance. The same applies to project management. Project managers want to look good. So, they work harder to achieve project objectives and to keep documentation of project accomplishments in neat order for the next visit by monitors or evaluators. In short, project management is a combination of good cop, bad cop, where the M&E staff became an external tool (bad cop) to assist project directors (good cops) keep their team members focused and responsive.
- Recognition of work performed: People naturally like to have someone take an interest in their work and highlight their contributions to the team and accomplishments as individuals. M&E provides that recognition when it shines a light on project accomplishments and disseminates findings of work well conducted. People are more motivated to perform well when someone takes interest in their work, when their work received attention beyond the confines of the activities for which they are directly responsible. However, those conducting monitoring or commissioning evaluations need to take measures to assure that M&E findings are indeed shared, particularly as feedback to those who are being monitored or evaluated.
- On-the-job learning: Often projects are implemented at multiple locations or project sites spread across a wide geographic area of a country or region within a country. Project staff working at one site are often not fully aware of what project staff are doing in other site locations, or how their colleagues “over the mountain” are solving some of the problems they also are encountering. Project monitoring staff and evaluation teams can promote information sharing across project locations as part of their work. Monitors and evaluators become the intellectual pollinators of ideas or solutions to problems confronting project staff in all locations. Evaluators play this role most effectively when, during their data gathering, they ask, “Are you aware of how your colleagues ‘over the mountain’ are addressing this problem or meeting that target?” Evaluators also play a critical role in assessing the extent to which project staffs across all site locations are adopting uniform definitions of what they are reporting and using standard measures of the changes they are tracking in their reporting. In this way, evaluators help identify common weaknesses of project implementation and share this knowledge in their evaluation reports in ways that identify best practices that all sites can adopt and follow.
In summary, M&E, when well administered, is an ongoing management tool, not just a one-time snapshot of how projects are working or what they have accomplished. Monitoring and evaluation are at the center of project management dynamics and the “nerve center” of project activities that is constantly providing feedback to incentivize improved management performance at all levels of project operation.