March 2023 Month & Learn: Common Challenges in Mid-Course Stocktaking
With many of the Agency’s Regional and Country Development Cooperation Strategies approaching their implementation mid-points, USAID Missions across the globe are gearing up to conduct CDCS mid-course stocktakings (MCSTs) for these strategies. MCSTs are a formal way of bringing Mission staff together to jointly pause and reflect on what has been learned over the course of strategy implementation to date, what new issues may have arisen, and what kind of course corrections might be needed as a result of new learning or changes in context. Missions must conduct at least one of these stocktakings during implementation (and the mid-course stocktaking can also count as the required annual strategy-level portfolio review!).
Implementing partners (IPs) provide valuable data and information that can serve as one source of learning for the mid-course stocktaking process. This may include IPs’ contextual or programmatic data, including beneficiary feedback, that informs the Mission's strategic thinking. Other sources of data could include USAID Country Roadmaps, sectoral assessments, stakeholder consultations, and/or local community listening sessions, to name a few.
What is the purpose of an MCST? The purpose of the mid-course stocktakings is to take stock of the Mission’s strategy as a whole - what's working and what's not, what have they learned so far, what may have changed in the context - and to apply this new knowledge and evidence to make adjustments to the strategy as needed.
What does the Mission need to do? Missions can organize the content and structure of a mid-course stocktaking however it best meets their individual needs. Missions need to define the role of staff and partners in the process of planning for and conducting the mid-course stocktaking. Following the mid-course stocktaking, the Mission will need to submit a memo to its Washington-based Regional Bureau documenting the stocktaking process and the resulting changes.
Where can Mission staff go for resources and examples? The Mid-Course Stocktaking Module and Overview contains helpful guidance on things such as honing mid-course stocktaking objectives, planning the process a Mission will follow, and conducting information analysis. There are also Mission examples, including facilitation guides, agendas, work plans, and timelines.
Drawing upon several recent Agency discussions about mid-course stocktaking, we’re breaking down the month’s topic into weekly themes focused on common challenges Missions face when approaching their MCSTs:
Topic 1: Integrating data into mid-course stocktaking processes and decision-making
Topic 2: Designing for virtual or hybrid mid-course stocktaking events
Topic 3: Engaging external (to USAID) parties in the process
Topic 4: Action Planning and Change Management resulting from mid-course stocktaking
To find out about each week’s content, follow us on Twitter at @USAIDLearning, look out for our March newsletter Learning Matters (subscribe to get it in your inbox!).
Revisit this page as it’s updated below with content and resources on the weekly topics!
Integrating data into mid-course stocktaking processes and decision-making
Missions embarking on their Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) mid-course stocktaking (MCST) process commonly face the challenge of identifying, analyzing, and using the right data to inform their MCST learning questions and priorities.
- The push for more and more data can create a time crunch with respect to thoughtfully analyzing and making sense of the data to inform decision-making.
- The stocktaking exercise will necessarily involve the examination of changes resulting from the portfolio of Mission programming as well as contextual shifts in the political and social environment. How all this data is synthesized, weighed, and used to validate or question the Mission’s strategic approach may be subject to differing interpretations.
- At Missions with highly integrated programming or robust cross-cutting priorities, it can be a challenge to find data and evidence which resonate across the portfolio. Offices may focus on results from their particular activities, without considering broader impacts.
- It’s helpful to use the CDCS Performance Management Plan (PMP) as a starting point - but important to carefully prioritize which questions to focus on, given limited time and resources, and limitations in available data.
- Consider use cases for a variety of key internal and external stakeholders (i.e. what’s most relevant to them at the time of the MCST) to help prioritize what questions and data to incorporate (see the emerging quick guide on use of data for MCSTs and portfolio reviews. A hard deadline can help with keeping the data gathering manageable and ensuring that critical data is not missing).
- Incorporating field trips and consultations with partners into the MCST can bring an important diversity of perspectives to the data you might not otherwise have on hand.
- Data placemats are very useful to simplify large amounts of data and facilitate engagement with specific types of data (see the data placemat resources from USAID's Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning's Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research).
- Resist setting up new data sharing/analysis structures to guide data reviews specifically for the MCST–use existing structures as much as possible to manage workload. Ensure that those who are most familiar with the data are engaged in analysis and presentation for the MCST.
- Leverage the work you do for the MCST. Ask: What else can this exercise inform, reinforce, serve? Examples might include: site visit requirements, strengthening collaboration across COR/AORs and partners, or identifying emergent priorities that need more focused attention.
What challenges have you faced during the MCST process? Share with us on Twitter at @USAIDLearning or submit a blog with your own experiences or lessons learned!
Designing for Virtual MCST Events
Designing for virtual or hybrid mid-course stocktaking events
Mid-course stocktaking exercises are a careful balance between comprehensive portfolio assessments and focused and strategic insights. In some cases they take place in a very concentrated period of time! Some Missions may start mid-course stocktaking by defining the key learning questions toward the common mid-course stocktaking objective of assessing the progress of implementing the country strategy. Regardless of how they structure this exercise, Missions reflect on what’s happened by looking at the evidence and hearing from stakeholders. Missions may approach this through data analysis and partner consultations in advance of a reflection workshop, or they may bring partners and stakeholders directly into the process for a participatory sensemaking workshop. Either way, effective virtual and hybrid facilitation skills are critical to surfacing diverse perspectives, generating new insights, and informing learning questions.
Pivoting to hybrid at the last minute when you expected Mission-based staff to be there in person
- Having virtual participants with speaking roles
- Team-building type of activities/events can be particularly difficult in a hybrid context, especially when it is only a priority for some
- Ensuring communication technology is adapted to the specific circumstances
- For a hybrid (or remote) MCST meeting or consultation, it is particularly important to be focused, ensure a short list of questions, and have targeted pre-work (or “homework” between sessions).
- Having a dedicated online facilitator can really help engagement for a hybrid event
- Allow additional time for designing hybrid events
- Carefully identify what parts of the event must be live in person and which can be hybrid.
- Participants will take their cue from leadership showing up (or not) as an indication of how important the in-person aspects might be.
- The Art of Hybrid Gathering
- Mission Examples for Mid-Course Stocktaking: Facilitation Guides | USAID Learning Lab
- Open letter on facilitating hybrid meetings
- Resources for Virtual Facilitation
Have you faced similar challenges with hybrid facilitation or another aspect of mid-course stocktaking? Share with us on twitter at @USAIDLearning or submit a blog with your own experiences or lessons learned!
Engaging external (to USAID) parties in the process
Mid-course stocktaking exercises are an opportunity for USAID Mission staff to engage directly with external stakeholders for valuable input. Mission staff may consult with external stakeholders in advance of a workshop, or invite those stakeholders to participate in workshops. These external stakeholders could include implementing partners, government counterparts, local civil society, or private sector actors. Missions may take a variety of approaches to stakeholder engagement based on their unique contexts. In tailoring an approach to engagement, Missions can consider the following challenges and tips:
- How to decide which stakeholders to engage and when, especially in light of potential time constraints.
- Stakeholder priorities and needs may not be able to be addressed due to USG constraints.
- Sometimes input from stakeholders may not fit into the MCST process, and instead may be used for other actions.
- The informal conversations leading up to the MCST sessions may be most useful – focus on building relationships, and maximizing and capturing learning from these conversations.
- Determine the appropriate level of engagement for all stakeholders (too many consultations may bring less value).
- Missions should prioritize external engagement based on specific needs of the MCST, and may consider emphasizing stakeholders whom they don't interact with as much in the usual course of business.
For our non-USAID audience members, have you been involved in a MCST process? What were some challenges you faced or reflections you have to share?
Action Planning and Change Management
Action planning and change management resulting from the MCST
Once the mid-course stocktaking event is successfully wrapped, it’s time to turn what was learned into Mission action - strong communication and coordination among implementing partners is essential to keep the momentum going. We know that’s not always easy!
- Performance Management Plan (PMP) indicator data that is not properly connected to the Results Framework and learning questions, or which may be missing, with implications for potential updates to Activity MEL Plans.
- The expectation that the PMP is not only the starting point of the MCST, but also needs to be updated as an output of the MCST.
- Operationalizing potential award modifications as a result of learning or course-corrections identified as part of the MCST.
- Time! Of the mission staff, the MCST shepherds, Implementing Partners, everyone!
- Revise the PMP learning agenda as an output to support answering questions that are still open as an output of the MCST.
- Identify the discrete "first step" towards the change and who will take it, in an action planning format, and tie it to related efforts and processes already or soon-to-be underway.
- Roadmap what the milestone and feedback loops should be, and who should be accountable, then put them on a future-looking calendar during the MCST.