What do donors expect from a project level M&E system?

In a large programme, the Project level M&E system is as vital as the programme’s Monitoring and Evaluation system itself. Since all the data and information is primarily collected through the M&E system of the project, it is critical to put in place a robust M&E system at the project level together with appropriate capacity/resources so that quality and timely data is available for the programme level indicators.

So what should the project M&E system include and what should it look like?

As there is no quick answer to this question, in this piece, I’m sharing some key components of the system, which can enhance the data quality for the programme level indicators. For the sake of simplicity, I’m dividing the M&E system into the M&E framework itself, and the capacity required to manage the system.

I believe that an M&E system should be planned well. By this, I mean that the system should be based on data and reporting requirements. One should not rush when designing a system in phases. It should be a well-thought system taking into consideration the following steps:

Step 1: Needs assessment and listing down the reporting requirements

The entire project team needs to be involved in this stage so that everyone is aware of what is coming. One of the key stages in this phase can be carried out by developing indicator meta-data or indicator reference sheets. Indicator meta-data provides essential details about the indicator definition, calculation method, data type, the desired direction of change, data source, data limitation, etc. In short, meta-data guides the designing of data collection tools, informs data management and reporting, and helps in ensuring data quality. More details will be covered in a separate article on this.

Step 2: Develop data collection tools

In this step, data collection tools are designed as per the indicator reporting requirement (disaggregation of data) as mentioned in the indicator meta-data. For example, if data for an indicator needs to be disaggregated by gender and province, the data collection instrument should include fields to record the required data. Depending on the indicators, a single data collection tool can be used to collect data for multiple indicators.

Step 3: Design a database/analytics/dashboard

This will be used to enter data, check data quality, and produce analysis and data visualizations. By using a proper database (rather than relying on spreadsheets):

  • data analysis can be performed faster and without any specialist support;
  • data quality can be enhanced;
  • data integrity can be ensured;
  • data/analysis can be available in real time.

More details will be covered in a separate article on this.

Step 4: Formulate an M&E strategy document for the project

In order to ensure a smooth operationalization of the M&E system, it is essential to formulate an M&E strategy (or guidelines) for the project. This strategy document should explain the Theory of Change (ToC), results chain, indicators, field-level monitoring, survey and assessments, data collection/tools, roles and responsibilities, data quality, database(s), etc. The strategy document should annex all the data collection tools, screenshots of the database, indicator reference sheets, etc. This document will be used as guidance material for the team responsible for data collection and managing the system.

Step 5: Roll out the Monitoring and Evaluation strategy

This can be done by arranging orientation training for the entire team including those who are responsible for data collection, data management, data quality, as well as the programme managers.

Step 6: Manage the system

A well-designed M&E system may fall apart if it is not properly managed. This means that the data needs to be monitored, and it should be ensured that quality data is collected and entered into the system as per the indicators’ meta-data.

Step 7: Review and improve the system

Experience shows that no M&E system can survive the whole life of a project without any improvement. In order to continually evolve the system, it is essential to include new features in the system, revise guidance material and tools, and include more analysis when needed.

The capacity or resources for the M&E system is of equal significance. Hiring personnel with relevant backgrounds is recommended. For designing and managing an M&E system, it is important to have a dedicated M&E team that is supported by other programme level staff. The team should have an M&E lead, supported by a data scientist if possible, some field-level monitoring staff and a database developer in case a customised database is designed.

The timing of the M&E System is also essential. Since any delay in the designing of the system may result in losing data – it is recommended to spend the first 4–6 months in making sure that the M&E framework is in place and the staff are trained on the system. The database development process may be time-consuming (in case where a customised database is required) and may not be available in time so timely efforts should be made by the implementing partners (IP) to ensure that the proper team is hired to make the system ready by the time the actual data collection starts.

To sum up, a robust Monitoring and Evaluation system at the project level which meets the reporting requirements of the donor agency can save time, energy and resources, and will enable the project or the implementing partner to submit data for their indicators in a timely manner.

The team of ActivityInfo would like to warmly thank Mr. Maheed Ullah Fazli Wahid for this insightful and detailed guide on effective project-level M&E systems.

Maheed Ullah Fazli Wahid is a high-profiled M&E expert with demonstrated experience in designing and managing M&E systems for multi-billion-dollar programmes focusing on humanitarian and development interventions. Currently, he is the Senior M&E System Manager for the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRiT) which is a programme consisting of over 100 projects covering projects in sectors such as Education, Health, Livelihoods, Cash Distribution, Protection, Municipal Infrastructure, and Migration Management.