The Global Development Lab Convenes Unlikely Partners Around MERL Innovations

May 3, 2017 by Amy Leo Comments (0)
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USAID is really trying to think outside the box. During the first in a series of collaborating, learning and adapting in action brown bag sessions, Sophia van der Bijl, Senior Impact Assessment Advisor for the Global Development Lab, described how her team spearheaded an initiative that brought a diverse group of stakeholders together to source and test innovations in monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning (MERL).

The Global Development Lab’s cross-cutting MERLIN Program (MERL + Innovation) is structured to allow USAID to work with partners to collaboratively identify, design, and test cutting-edge solutions to more effectively understand and measure the impacts of development programs.

Stacey Young and Sophia van der Bijl

The program exists because USAID recognizes that while standard approaches to Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) work well for many USAID projects, they fall short when specific outputs and outcomes are not easily identifiable up front, or where change is non-linear. And they often focus on results only at the midpoint or end of a project, when it’s too late to adapt if targets aren’t being met. This is especially true for projects operating in highly complex environments in which project managers must adapt the project design over the course of the project.

The Lab’s Evaluation and Impact Assessment team used a Broad Agency Announcement mechanism (read about other Broad Agency Announcements (BAA) processes here and here, and listen here) to solicit expressions of interest in developing MERL innovations. The announcement generated 83 responses from more than 30 organizations representing a wide variety of actors--from academics to private companies and NGOs--many of whom had not worked with USAID before. All 30 organizations were invited to a MERLIN co-creation workshop in June 2015.

During the workshop, participants were asked to work together as partners with USAID on developing their MERL innovation ideas. This was a new dynamic for two reasons. First, these individuals and groups typically compete with each other for funding, and second, current USAID partners were inured to dealing with USAID as a donor, not a partner. So, the arrangement of the co-creation workshop was both a challenge and opportunity for current and potential partners.

Throughout the workshop, 83 ideas were distilled into five approved concepts. If you’re interested in reading about the five approved concepts, click here to access the full case study. Following the workshop, co-design continued on each of the concepts, which were presented to a USAID peer review panel for approval.

This case was distinguished as a finalist in the 2016 Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) Case Competition because the following subcomponents of the CLA Framework were strongly reflected in it:

  • CLA in Implementing Mechanisms/External Collaboration: Because of the way that they convene a wide variety of stakeholders to collaborate on a complex challenge, Broad Agency Announcements are an inherently CLA-friendly contracting mechanism.

  • Resources: Implementation of the approved concepts was a joint effort between the Broad Agency Announcements participants and USAID’s Evaluation and Impact Assessment  team, as well as USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, and Global Health Bureaus.

Additionally, Sophia shared honest reflection on lessons learned from the BAA process. She reported that it was originally assumed that USAID operating units would be willing to contribute funds and other resources to test/pilot the MERLIN concepts. In reality, it was far more difficult than expected to get sustained enthusiasm and financial buy-in from missions and Washington, D.C.-based operating units. Based on these lessons so far, MERLIN is tailoring their communications tools and seeking to identify additional champions within the agency to identify and secure more pilots.

If this case study reminds you of how you’re incorporating CLA in your work, share your story in the 2017 CLA Case Competition! Learn more about it and enter during the 2017 submission period: May 1-June 16.

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