Skip to main content
Community Contribution

Taking Stock of Mid-Course Stocktaking

Jul 09, 2024
Sean Mulkerne, Giang Tong Le

Working adaptively has been part and parcel of USAID programming for well over a decade. With collaborating, learning, and adapting as a central element of the Program Cycle, USAID’s activities now routinely take time out to pause and reflect, update their theories of change, and adapt their approaches to implementation in service of achieving better development results. The same is true for USAID itself: a Mission must conduct at least one Mid-Course Stocktaking (MCST) during the life of a Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS). But how does a Mission - with a significant budget, working across a range of issues, with several critical partners - effectively take stock of its work and change course as needed? What can others learn from the experience?

How we delivered our MCST

In early 2024, about a year before its current CDCS was set to expire, USAID/Vietnam asked USAID Learns, the Mission’s ME-CLA support contract implemented by Social Impact, to assist with its MCST. The MCST would last about four months, commencing with the USAID/Vietnam Program Office leading a review of its data information systems, and Learns conducting a detailed review of existing documents, including recent evaluations, annual reports, assessments, and other materials. During this time, to support the Agency Localization strategy, the Mission also completed a wide-ranging Localization Learning Review, examining recent cases of how USAID/Vietnam engaged with local partners. Throughout the MCST, under the guidance from the Front Office, the Program Office managed communications throughout the Mission to ensure the Technical and Support Offices were informed and the process remained on track.

Following completion of the document and data reviews, Learns facilitated full day workshops with each of the four USAID/Vietnam Technical Offices, reviewing the findings from the review process and soliciting reflections and feedback on implementation of the CDCS. These sessions culminated in a Mission leadership workshop led by the Program Office, reviewing the key findings from throughout the MCST with the Front Office and Technical Office leaders and identifying next steps. 

The MCST provided an important opportunity to reflect on progress, lessons learned, and the Mission’s evolving relationships with local stakeholders, and identify emerging themes for its next country strategy. The Mission ultimately decided that its CDCS did not need to be substantively changed, but it did discuss a range of issues for its next CDCS, including refining its Development Objectives, maximizing synergies between the objectives, and reviewing the Mission’s geographic focus across Vietnam. 

Reflections from our work

USAID/Vietnam and Learns referred regularly to the Mid-Course Stocktaking Module and the How-To Note while delivering the MCST, as well as experiences from other Missions. We offer the following additional insights to other USAID Missions embarking on their own MCST.

MCST as a Whole-of-Mission Exercise

  • Leadership and Collaboration: Treat the MCST as a comprehensive Mission exercise, led by the Program Office and supported by the Front Office, with Technical Offices making meaningful contributions. While a ME/CLA support contract can help reduce delivery burdens, ensure it does not result in the MCST being perceived as outsourced, as this could undermine detailed staff engagement and learning opportunities.

Addressing Big Questions

  • Strategic Exploration: Use the MCST to tackle significant strategic questions beyond the Mission’s overarching strategy, assumptions, and intended results. In our case, USAID/Vietnam and Learns scoped several additional questions to be answered through the exercise. By leveraging the rare opportunity to have all Technical Office staff in the same room for a full day, the MCST helped the Mission explore significant issues and agree on a way forward for addressing them. Some of the additional questions we considered included:
    • Should USAID/Vietnam’s focus on the Mekong Delta be made more explicit in its strategy?
    • Should the Mission have a continued focus on governance in its ways of working and its results?
    • How can the Mission take advantage of opportunities to support localization?
    • To what extent does the Mission’s programming align sufficiently with Government of Vietnam priorities?

Scoping and Logistics

  • Scoping: Avoid scoping of the MCST too early. The needs and priorities of the Mission can change, so scoping close to the kickoff ensures relevance and sustained interest. Early Mission input on the scope can also boost participation. 
  • Ease of Participation: Minimize burdens for participants by aligning the MCST with their schedules and needs. For example, a one-stop shop resource (see our example site here) can streamline logistics and reduce email traffic.

Essential Skills and Techniques

  • Facilitation and Research Skills: Facilitation and research skills are essential to a successful MCST, especially as the exercise can cover a wide range of topics. Skilled facilitators can guide productive discussions and ensure ownership of conclusions, while thorough desk reviews, interviews, and data analyses can underpin the exercise with robust evidence.
  • Beyond Documentation: Do not rely on documents to identify key results - accounts of the most meaningful impacts of USAID’s work might be found elsewhere. Higher-order results are hard to articulate and often need in-person conversations to come to life and take shape. In our review of numerous documents from USAID/Vietnam and implementing partners, many reports tended to focus on delivery of outputs, rather than progress toward outcomes. Evaluations may not even sufficiently capture the sort of results that the Mission feels demonstrate progress toward the CDCS Goal.
  • Acknowledging Knowledge Gaps: The MCST also provides an opportunity to acknowledge what is not known and seek out opportunities to follow up. For example, a MCST may help a Mission realize their knowledge gaps on inclusion, necessitating further work on an inclusive development analysis.

Effective Communication and Follow-Up

  • Use of Visuals: Utilize charts, GIS maps, placemats and other visual aids to stimulate effective conversation (see example image). Avoid overly detailed slide decks and reports. Consider real-time graphic facilitation (see example image) to capture key points and lessons in an engaging format.
  • Embedding Findings: Carry forward the findings from the MCST by embedding actions into other priorities, including the CDCS revision process. The Information Memo and Action Plan templates can help organize thinking, but be sure that identified actions are owned within the Mission and followed up regularly.
  • Continuous Improvement: Hold an After-Action Review (AAR) with the other key organizers to reflect on the MCST process and identify any improvements or next steps. In our own AAR, for example, the Program Office and Learns discussed practices we can introduce now to support the next Mission level strategy review, such as implementing Most Significant Change, which may produce useful narratives on results to inform future stocktaking.

For USAID/Vietnam, the MCST was an important opportunity for the whole Mission to reflect on progress, the relevance of its programming, and its strategic direction. The Mission affirmed the validity of its strategy and identified critical areas for future focus. With the MCST now complete, USAID/Vietnam is building on the momentum by moving forward with its initial steps in developing its 2025-2030 CDCS. We hope that our insights serve as a useful reflection for other Missions embarking on their own MCST.

About the authors
Bio image of Sean Mulkerne
Sean Mulkerne

Sean is the Senior Governance and Learning Specialist at USAID Learns, where he advises USAID/Vietnam on governance issues, CLA, research and analysis, and activity design. He has over a decade of experience in project management and MEL in a variety of African and Asian contexts. Sean holds a master's degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a bachelor's degree from Union College in New York. 

Bio Image for Giang Le Tong
Giang Tong Le

Giang Tong Le is the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Advisor for USAID at the US Embassy in Hanoi. With over sixteen years of experience in monitoring, evaluation, and learning, Giang has excelled in project design and implementation across various international development programs. He specializes in data management, analysis, and visualization, utilizing tools like Excel, STATA, SPSS, ArcGIS, and PowerBI to support evidence-based decision-making and program improvement.