When Indicators Get in the Way, Go Report Minimal?

Now, there’s a lot we could debate here about data collection processes, or tools, or when and how data clerks should be employed – but that’s not the point. Instead, we suggest that a growing amount of the qualitative evidence indicates that costs of collecting and reporting on the data that inform high-level performance indicators (for various agencies) can be quite high – perhaps higher than the M&E community typically realizes. These opportunity costs were echoed across countries and sectors; discussions with agricultural staff in Ghana, for example, suggest that many extension workers spend up to a quarter (or more) of their time collecting and reporting data.

That’s from a recent ICTworks blogpost. It’s focused on a specific initiative (HIV clinic in TZ), but the spirit will ring true to anyone who’s done donor reporting from the field (or at all really). The idea that reporting gets in the way of work is familiar, but it’s often even worse in a tech context, when there’s a presumption of data abundance, and finding metrics to strenghten work and anticipate roadblocks can be hard enough. 

The Engine Room did a lot of work in this area when I was leading support to orgs using metrics, and there’s some good tools and principled screeds in the User’s Guide to Measuring Impact that we produced.

But at the end of the day, this is a question of power, and scrappy tech initiatives don’t always have the leverage to push back against donor data requests, even when “every minute spent on a data reporting template meant a minute an expecting mother didn’t receive adequate care.” It makes me wish back for Twaweza’s exemplary approach to producing one annual report for all donors. Full stop.

Granted, Twaweza has always had a unique donor position, but I can’t help wondering: if Rakesh Rajani had stayed on as ED just a bit longer, and talked about this just a bit more as the org’s international star continued to rise, would more NGOs have started trying that approach, and maybe tipped some of the scales of power just a little bit?

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