In Conversation with a 2019 CLA Case Competition Winner
Amy Prevatt, co-author of a 2019 winning case with USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean (USAID/LAC), reflects on why she and colleague Todd M. Anderson decided to enter the CLA Case Competition and shares tips on brainstorming ideas for submitting a case.
In LAC MEL Specialists Use Peer Network to Improve Quality and Use of Evidence, Amy and Todd capture how the LAC Bureau established a regional peer network to strengthen existing linkages; empower monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) specialists; and improve data quality and systemic use of evidence.
Amy is a Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Advisor with PPL’s Program Cycle Mechanism (PCM) and supports USAID/LAC in the Strategy and Program Office. This interview between Amy and Katherine Doyle from the Learning Lab team has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Katherine: Why did you and your colleagues at USAID/LAC decide to submit a case to the CLA Case Competition in 2019? What motivated you?
Amy: We had a really active peer network - a community of practice - of monitoring, evaluation and learning professionals already established in the region. We had an in-person gathering in 2017 and were already in the process of planning for a second in-person gathering in October 2019. We thought that we had a lot of examples of this group’s collaboration and learning, and how we were working together to share information, best practices, and lessons learned that were particular to the LAC context.
There was a good amount of traffic on our online discussion forum and participation in our regularly held learning events and webinars. We had already started putting together examples of some interesting things we were doing. When [the CLA Case Competition] came out, Todd and I thought, ‘Aha!’ This is a really great way to capture some of things we’ve learned and lessons we can share with our colleagues who are trying to establish their own communities of practice, including our colleagues in other USAID bureaus who are building their regional networks of MEL specialists and communities of practice in other areas.
Katherine: Since 2019 and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, how has the peer network evolved or grown stronger? What have been more recent milestones?
Amy: I would definitely say that the network has evolved as there have been different people and personalities that have come into the network. But particularly within the context of COVID - with having to completely shift everything to an online-based focus, everything has to be virtual these days. Originally, we were holding webinars once a quarter with our Mission colleagues. In the early days of COVID, we shifted that to every other week. We thought the peer network could support one another during a time that was really difficult for a lot of people.
And, secondly, with the context for remote monitoring and data collection shifting so rapidly during COVID and a lot of different messaging and ways of doing things in a time of huge adjustment and adaptation both for Mission staff and programming, we felt it was key to meet on a more regular basis. We could share information with one another and talk about the tools and techniques we were using to adapt to remote monitoring and working during the lockdowns.
Now that people have gotten busier and more used to working remotely, we’ve shifted to meeting every three weeks. We are still able to share information on a regular basis, but based on input from the group, they decided that we don’t need to meet quite as often.
One thing that has shifted is that peer network members are more willing to lead. Staff from our Missions have suggested topics and led presentations and discussions. For example, our M&E specialist from Haiti gave a presentation on Haiti’s approaches to remote monitoring. Our staff in Nicaragua led a remote monitoring site visit where we observed USAID’s work with young entrepreneurs and talked with Mission staff and activity participants. It inspired a lot of us, and gave us ideas on how we might continue with data quality assessments and still being able to do field monitoring, even though we can’t travel.
We’re definitely seeing more Mission-to-Mission correspondence and exchanges of information. We mentioned this in the case study, but Mission staff are sharing Spanish-language templates and presentation materials.
Katherine: What are a couple pieces of advice you’d give to a practitioner who wants to create and sustain a community of practice? What has helped make your peer network so successful?
Amy: I think listening to people, asking what would be useful for them, frequency of communication, means of communication.
We try to communicate through a variety of means. We do monthly updates to the field from the Strategy and Program Office. We have an online discussion forum. And we still send out email blasts whenever there’s a useful resource, an event coming up, or a new training course. And then we’re also planning to do a LAC MEL Peer Network Gathering at the end of May. It’ll be virtual, of course, which will be its own challenge. But we’re looking at it as a way to be creative and to get more folks from the Mission involved because they won’t have to travel to Washington.
Katherine: Why do you think the CLA Case Competition is important?
Amy: I think it’s a really great way to showcase how people are learning and adapting. Given that we work in such fluid environments, it’s great to see that people are actually using data and evidence. Getting information from the field, from the partners and beneficiaries, and actually taking it into consideration and adapting it into programming - you really have to adjust and make pivots. The great thing about the CLA Case Competition is that a variety of actors can share their work - people from Washington but also our Mission staff and our implementing partners - and provide examples of tools and techniques that they’ve used. I think those best practices and those lessons learned can be very valuable to people and help them to see things from a variety of perspectives. Also, it is interesting to see how others are being creative with their approaches and how they’re collecting data and conducting their programming.
Katherine: What was the most difficult part in writing the case?
Amy: We actually interviewed several of our Mission staff to get their impressions of the peer network. They provided so many great examples of how they were doing their work, pivots they had made, and how they were using learning in their approaches. It was really hard to narrow things down. We had a lot more examples in our original draft, and it was really difficult to decide which ones to use.
Katherine: How did it feel to be recognized, and by extension have the peer network be recognized, by USAID as part of a winning case submission?
Amy: We found out right as a number of our MEL specialists and [points of contact] had arrived in Washington for the LAC MEL Gathering, so it was actually really exciting! We celebrated with cake. The timing felt really fitting that the people from the field who actually make all this possible and are the drivers behind this network were there to celebrate. Our colleagues from the bureau were really excited, too.
Katherine: Have you and your team used others’ case studies to learn from or inform your own work?
Amy: We’ve actually referred to some of the case studies in our area. For example, there’s one from Honduras that we reviewed, and there were some ideas we used from Mission Performance Management Plans and activity MEL plans. Mostly, it has been to get creative ideas on approaches for learning and also to see what other people are doing. A lot of the cases that I’ve read have been countries or regions that I’ve worked in or involving activities that I’m familiar with. It’s great for cross-pollination of ideas for approaches. That’s one of the things that I really like about these types of case competitions, that you can share different ideas across different sectors and regions that may not always interact.
Katherine: Do you have any tips or suggestions for those who would like to enter the Case Competition and are trying to come up with a case?
Amy: Think about practical examples. That’s one of the ideas that Todd and I had that really strengthened our case. But also, not just trying to think of things on your own, but reaching out to your colleagues. If you’re a Washington-based person, reach out to colleagues in the field and ask them to reflect on a practice or approach that has worked and hasn’t worked for them. And I would say also don’t be afraid of using examples where things didn’t work. Choose something that will be interesting to other people, not just to you.
Katherine: Anything else you’d like to share?
Amy: This is a great opportunity to share what you’re doing and how you’re learning and adapting. I think it’s important, as part of the case, to show you’re actually using the data and evidence to adapt and make strategic pivots. And have fun with it. It’s a great chance to brainstorm and bounce ideas off your colleagues. It’s an opportunity to get feedback, and to have a number of people contribute their ideas and their point of view and provide practical examples that you may or may not be aware of.