Outputs are universally defined as the tangible/quantifiable deliverables for which an implementation team can be held responsible. There are two things that seem to commonly confound the way we define ‘outputs’ for M&E purposes.
- We confuse ‘outputs’ (conceived as the deliverables of the implementation team), with ‘outputs’ conveived as the anticipated deliverables of the project (i.e. the outcomes)…more on this another time!
- We tend to get a little verbose in the way we describe what we are actually delivering. Part of this stems from professional pride and the need to be offering something fresh and innovative. But it also partly stems from the ‘spin’ that is sometimes associated with a project proposal submitted to a donor. We feel the need to sound sophisticated, and to align with popular (or politically correct) terminology.
In either case, what we end up with is vague (and hence for M&E purposes…) unattainable outputs. The acid test is to imagine an implementation team member coming home at the end of a day in the field and being asked by his/her partner, “Hi honey, what did you do today?”. If the outputs (as they are phrased) render a vague or unbelievable response, then chances are, for M&E purposes, they are not very useful.
For example, if someone working in an advocacy project declares to their partner, “today I’ve been lobbying”. This will almost certainly lead to a follow-up question…”yes, but what did you actually do?”.
Work by the International Development & Research Centre (IDRC) offers a useful framework to help guide our thinking in terms of what we actually do in aid projects. They argue that there are three broad types of strategy that development agencies employ:
* Causal: strategies aimed at directly changing a situation
* Persuasive: strategies aimed at influencing a situation or thinking about a situation
* Supportive: strategies aimed at influencing the environment with which a focal problem is situated
When we apply this framework, we find that there are literally a limited set of things that any development agency can actually do to foster desirabel changes in the world:
- Resources: equipment, literature, tools…
- Infrastructure: major assets, buildings, structures…
- Training: lectures, demonstrations, exchange visits, workshops…
- Mentoring: informal training such as on-the-job coaching…
- Special events: meetings, conferences, workshops, public forums…
- Information campaigns: advertising, media releases, meetings with key change agents…
This may seem a little boring compared to nice fluffy statements about what we are doing. But for M&E purposes it grounds our work and locates the anticipated changes of our projects in a pragmatic framework.
The reason this is important is that when we come to evaluate the impact of a project, we can appreciate any significant and lasting changes observed among the ultimate beneficiaries in the context of what has actually been done to foster those changes (i.e. the effort invested by the implementation team). This then allows more meaningful debate about what has worked or not worked.