The head of a dog!

The tension between Aristotle’s functionalist (‘classical’) view and Plato’s interpretist (‘romantic’) view of M&E that I discussed in my last blog is everywhere.

I’m engaged as an M&E Advisor to a major bilateral aid program in South East Asia.  Recently a senior government official asked a colleague of mine, “why are you guys bothering with all this ‘operational’ M&E data?  We’re ultimately interested in the impact or outcomes of the program, so why not just focus on that kind of information?”.

My colleague responded “well if you just want the head of the dog we can do that.  But in order to really learn and improve our effectiveness, we need to know about the body and legs of the dog as well”. 

The idea of focussing exclusively on ‘higher order’ performance is particularly vogue at the moment.  This is probably a reaction to the bad old days when performance reporting was exclusively about activities and outputs…a very operational focus. But I worry that we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water when we romanticise ‘higher order’ or ‘strategic’ performance data at the expense of ‘lower order’ or ‘operational’ performance data.

In order to really learn what works and what doesn’t we need to adopt a ‘systems perspective’.  In practice this involves articulating the ‘theory of change’ implicit in our interventions…what are the steps that we will take to bring about the desired change in the world?  We must then capture relevant, accurate and timely information about each of the steps in the ‘theory of change’. 

We can then piece together all of the data from each step in the change process like a puzzle to reveal a holistic picture of the extent and merit of the changes actually realised.  We can then identify which elements of the change process were most/least effective.  We can then learn and improve.

This involves at least three main sets of data…’operational’ data (the legs of the dog); ‘tactical’ data (the body of the dog) and ‘strategic’ data (the head of the dog).  Focussing on any single part at the expense of the others will fail to give a comprehensive picture of performance (the whole dog!).

Can you see the ‘zen’ tension?  There is certainly value in sitting back and viewing the ‘whole dog’ in its entirety, but there is also value in examining the key components and the relationship between them.  Both perspectives inform the other.

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