USAID/Guatemala's Journey to Incorporate CLA into their Project MEL Plan
Andrew Greer, Ph.D, is a Program Specialist, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning in the Learning Division of USAID's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.
While the concept of CLA has been widely written about on USAID Learning Lab and other platforms, USAID staff still struggle with the practical task of incorporating CLA into Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) plans, a requirement in USAID’s revised ADS 201. The goal of this blog post is to provide USAID staff with a possible roadmap of articulating the relationship between CLA and MEL; this post highlights a practical example of one office’s journey to incorporate CLA into their Project MEL Plan. (For tips on Project MEL Plans, see this recent how-to note from PPL.)
USAID/Guatemala’s Focus on CLA
On a recent TDY to the USAID/Guatemala Mission, I collaborated with the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG) Office to draft a Project Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) Plan. The DRG Office expressed a strong interest in CLA, but staff members needed a plan to document how they would frame MEL through a CLA lens.
First, we worked together to create a common understanding of the definition of CLA. Second, we workshopped CLA principles with a focus on stakeholders, learning agenda questions, and opportunities for adapting programming. Finally, we incorporated CLA throughout the Project MEL Plan to create a living document with a balance of stability and flexibility. In other words, we used the principles of collaborating, learning, and adapting to incorporate CLA into the MEL plan.
As stated in multiple online publications about CLA on USAID Learning Lab and elsewhere, USAID staff members are already collaborating, learning, and adapting. The ADS requirements to describe CLA simply make CLA explicit, systematic, and intentional. The first step in this process should be to agree on a common understanding of CLA.
Collaborating. The DRG Office staff and I worked together to understand the current context of their work. We came to the understanding that the DRG Office was already collaborating with stakeholders of current activities, and the wider Mission had plans for regular meetings of cross-sectoral working groups. The DRG Office decided that if stakeholders and cross-sectoral working groups met regularly, the focus of their collaboration work could be a continuation of their current practices. The MEL Plan includes this understanding of collaborating.
Learning. The DRG team at the Guatemala Mission is already engaged in multiple research activities such as impact evaluations. However, they expressed an interest in overarching questions to integrate research activities and inform future directions of programming. In other words, they wanted a learning agenda. The desire for a learning agenda came back up during the workshopping phase.
Adapting. The team acknowledged the importance of adapting programming in evidence-informed ways. We came to the conclusion that the degree of adaptation should correspond to confidence in the evidence. For example, we thought adjusting programing around the edges was effective if performance indicators or other empirical evidence suggested we weren’t meeting development goals. For more drastic adaptations, we thought the evidence should be both empirical and rigorous. In other words, we think adapting should –of course – be flexible, but always evidence based.
The reason for a workshop was to bring all staff from the DRG Office together to generate a mutual understanding of current and future plans around CLA. In preparation for facilitating the Workshop, I gathered informative instructional material from the Learning Lab website (examples include CLA key concepts, maturity matrix, ADS 201 Additional help drafting a CLA plan). Next, I divided the team into four groups to explore current and future CLA plans – a suggestion taken directly from the document, ADS 201 Additional Help: Drafting a CLA Plan. One team took on each of the four key concepts to workshop – collaborating, learning, adapting, and enabling conditions.
The following is an excerpt from the ADS 201 document used to facilitate the workshop for each group:
Collaborating: Are we collaborating with the right partners? In the right way? How are we collaborating internally? Which relationships or networks need attention?
Learning: What processes and activities are in place to encourage learning? What sort of questions are we asking to fill knowledge gaps and make informed decisions? How are we using and learning from our monitoring data and evaluations? How are we learning from program implementation? How are we sharing what we’ve learned internally and with stakeholders?
Adapting: What are we doing to regularly reflect on our programs and the context in which we work? How are we using what we’ve learned from collaboration and learning activities to make decisions and adjustments? What processes and activities are in place to encourage adaptation?
Enabling Conditions: How does our organizational environment support our collaborating, learning and adapting efforts? What changes in the organizational culture or processes would make the biggest difference?
After each group discussed one concept, we shared our conclusions. Additionally, the group came up with a number of higher-level learning questions to inform a preliminary learning agenda. At the end of the Workshop, I gathered all the material as a reference for the Project MEL Plan.
In line with the revised ADS 201, I incorporated current and future CLA ideas into the Project MEL Plan. The ADS 201 requires four elements for CLA plans: collaboration, gaps in knowledge, plans to pause and reflect on progress made, and resources for CLA. These elements are well-aligned with the questions that the DRG team workshopped. Accordingly, the CLA plan was drafted with accurate information directly from the source – the DRG team. Additionally, I worked with the DRG Office to strengthen sections within the draft by including CLA elements. For example, we describe how the CLA goals of the Mission align with those of the DRG Office. Finally, we included language to state that the Project MEL Plan is a living document that should be adapted in light of new evidence.
This blog post only describes one case of incorporating CLA into MEL documents at USAID. In time, multiple examples of documenting CLA will offer a variety of options not only to comply with the ADS, but also to systematically highlight the relationship of CLA and MEL.
Please share your own examples in the comments section.