As you embark on a monitoring and evaluation project, an important part of the inception process is to define some of the clear and determined indicators you would like to track and report on over time, as the project is being implemented. This refers particularly to process monitoring and evaluation, where accountability for delivery against specified implementation targets is a key aspect. It is also important to define reporting cycles, as this, in turn, will define the M&E implementation cycles, and timing of data collection and analysis.
Reporting is important as it is the primary way to capture, consolidate and communicate project findings. It is through good reporting that one provides feedback to the implementation team for ongoing improvement, or to the leadership team to provide strategic advice. It is through reporting that funders can be kept informed regarding progress against expenditure and targets. Progress reports can be particularly useful, as whilst holding implementation to the targeted outcomes and impact, this can also provide the space to capture all the unanticipated outcomes, and the unexpected findings. Progress reports can provide space for essential accountability, as well as a channel for ongoing feedback.
During the inception process, it is a good idea to develop an Gannt chart, not only for project implementation activities, but also a separate one for the M&E which links to the instruments, and when they will be applied and which defines which reports are compiled at different stages of the project. Designing these two functions separately allows the M&E team to transform every interaction between the implementation function and the M&E function as an important opportunity to gather information. Be sure to define the frequency of these reports, as well as to be clear on who is responsible for generating these.
Progress reporting is itself an excellent opportunity to gather information on critical learnings from programme implementation teams, particularly in complex settings. Making the compilation of progress report a collaborative process adds a great deal of value to developmental-type qualitative findings around the programme theory, or the theory of change you have defined.
There is no set format for a progress report. However, a useful system is to develop a template which includes the key outcomes targets and then provides space for reporting against these targets for the time period. If you use a template to gather information from programme teams, be sure to consolidate this information into a cohesive synthesis, and include an introduction and a section on recommendations for the next cycle. Know the difference between ‘data’ and ‘information’, and be sure to make all progress reporting information rich. You will be grateful for having done this thinking at the time when it was relevant to events.
The following are key attributes of a good progress report:
#1 Progress reports outline results for the reporting period
Measuring delivery outputs is one of the most straightforward parts of M&E, and it is essential that implementation information is complete and well packaged when it comes to the evaluation stage. If the output target was to conduct 25 workshops of 10 people each by a certain date, progress reports should report against these targets, and specify precisely what implementation took place during the period. Similarly, if the team aimed to achieve certain milestones, such as securing the collaboration of key stakeholders, this should also be recorded. Reporting on both positive and negative results in the most important aspect of progress reporting. Be sure to frame the reporting in the language of results, descriptive, but clearly linking to the targets set.
#2 Progress reports are important resource calibration tools
Progress reporting should include information on resources and budgets, as linked to the activities being conducted. These reports inform both programme management teams, as well as decision-making and strategic or M&E teams. They are important for accountability and strategy. Be sure to include a very technical update on whether budgets and resources are being spent as planned, and are sufficient to cover the planned activities. The accounting of implementation is a critical element, particularly if you’re working in impact investing spaces, or evaluating optimal organizational designs to achieve required outcomes.
#3 Provide some assessment of performance, and provide some background information where targets were met, exceeded or where these could not be achieved
Progress reports are an excellent opportunity to implementers to capture on-the-ground learnings. If progress reports are designed to capture information on where targets where exceeded, or not met, this enables solution building and improved decision making for the future implementation. Some findings which come out of progress reporting turn out to be the key to explaining outcomes during later evaluation stages.
#4 Know your audience
Progress reports are an important part of communicating to key stakeholders. If your progress report is simply to update funders on progress, develop a template, and keep the writing short form, to provide key information, and to effectively update stakeholders. If your progress reporting system is to provide guidance on improving implementation to different team members, be sure to provide an analysis of problems arising, and suggested solutions for improvement. If the progress reports are intended to update decision makers, it is helpful to consolidate seemingly disparate pieces of information into a central thesis about how things are going, and where things might need to change and why. Be sure to identify where resource allocations, and targets, or their indicators might require adjustment.
#5 Progress reporting processes can build cohesion between teams
Progress reporting processes are an opportunity for teams, sometimes working in different locations, to regroup, to share learnings, and to potentially contextualize some of the challenges they face. Particularly in the context of developmental or complex evaluations, using this as an opportunity for teams to meet (even virtually), and to share can substantially enhance the motivation of teams, as well as the quality of the work done.