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Published on June 4th, 2024

Unveiling the Power of MEL: A Journey Towards Stakeholder-led Learning and Adaptation

Can monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) foster program ownership and a learning culture that leads to stakeholder-led adaptive programming?

You’ve probably heard your monitoring, evaluation, and learning colleagues talk about the importance of using data for program improvement, but how often have you seen or experienced a MEL process that intentionally prioritises learning? The truth is, creating a meaningful environment for learning doesn’t just happen. It demands substantial investments in time and resources to establish a space conducive to candid reflection. It involves careful consideration of who participates, how data is shared, and the design of a process that fosters open sharing without fear or judgment.

As we set out to design a MEL learning space for Pacific Women Lead Enabling Services (PWL), a program that is ambitious in its intent to take a Pacific-led approach to promoting gender equality, we knew there would be high expectations from our stakeholders.

One of the largest global commitments to gender equality, PWL aims to promote women’s leadership, realise women’s rights, and increase the effectiveness of regional gender equality efforts. PWL is a five-year (2021-2026) AUD170 million regional gender equality program funded by the Australian Government and implemented by the Pacific Community (SPC), targeted Pacific women-led civil society organisations, Pacific Women’s Funds and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) bilateral and regional gender projects (including projects with Pacific civil-society, INGOs and UN agencies).

In September 2023, we held our inaugural Reflection and Analysis workshop with over 70 stakeholders from 10 Pacific countries. We gathered to engage stakeholders in the analysis and assessment of program progress, promoting transparency and building a mutual commitment to understand and enhance impact.  We are excited to present a video featuring participants' firsthand ratings of the program’s progress and our first Progress Report featuring their recommendations. In this blog, we share four lessons that we believe were critical to creating a successful stakeholder-led analysis and reflection workshop.

Visualising data for impact

Presenting program data in digestible mediums is crucial, and this involves significant pre-synthesis. For the workshop, we synthesised data from 60 projects across 14 countries and presented this back to workshop participants via Results Charts. Results Charts were created for each outcome area of the program, where we presented quantitative and qualitative data against the program’s logic hierarchy. For each outcome area, we collected and presented a minimum of five impact stories to provide richer qualitative insights and lessons. Using the Result Charts and impact stories, stakeholders discussed and responded to questions such as: What is the data telling you about PWL progress? What stands out as the best achievement? Who is missing from the data? How might we address this? Are you satisfied with the level of evidence available? What are some gaps in implementation or areas where you think the program should focus next year?

Facilitation: The Backbone

What’s the sweet spot of facilitator to participant ratio? We had a team of nine facilitators for 70+ participants. This might seem high, but it made a world of difference and strengthened the quality of our workshop findings and recommendations. The facilitators’ ability to guide participants through activities and ensure that groups didn’t get stuck in the weeds of data analysis transformed the entire experience.

Our dynamic facilitation team comprised the Pacific Community’s Pacific Women Lead MEL team, who served as workshop co-conveners, alongside MEL technical partners Clear Horizon and CoLab, as well as our DFAT MEL focal point. Additionally, we included external technical expertise to supplement our in-house capabilities. Notably, a disability expert from the Pacific Disability Forum, along with a Disability Adviser who played a crucial role in guiding a 'deep dive' analysis aimed at enhancing the program's disability inclusion efforts. An important aspect of our facilitation team was the equal representation of Pacific to non-Pacific facilitators.

Our lesson: don’t skimp on facilitators, they are absolutely worth the investment!

Preparing participants for success

This goes way beyond simply sharing the workshop agenda beforehand and gets participants into the mindset for analysis.

We held pre-workshop online briefing sessions providing important background information about the program and its MEL system. We outlined what participants would be asked to do and gave an insight into the types of data and the activities that would take place at the workshop. Importantly, we started to socialise the idea of how project MEL fed into whole-of-program MEL and what this meant for the analysis workshop. We needed participants to bring their experience to the workshop but also think about the PWL program and progress towards the whole-of-program logic. Making sure participants were clear on this and giving them time to think about what this meant helped them to show up ready to share and contribute.

We also worked with the Clear Horizon Academy to develop an online MEL course: Using Data for Reporting and Learning. We asked participants to complete the course prior to the workshop. This online course was self-paced and focused on how to use data to help determine progress, report on impact, and ultimately, make better, evidence-informed decisions.

Capturing the unseen

While reporting is an important accountability mechanism, we know many partners struggle to present their program’s performance through formulaic written reports. Often, a significant challenge arises when donors impose reporting requirements that don’t align with the partners' approach to authentically convey the story of their progress. PWL is not alone in this challenge, and learning spaces can be invaluable for capturing evidence of undocumented outcomes—a treasure trove of hidden insights that could shape future strategies. During the analysis process, we asked participants to help us identify strong examples of progress that were missing from the Results Charts. When identified, we were able to dig into these outcomes in more detail, and it informed our story collection plan over the next six months.

As we embark on the next phase of the MEL journey for PWL, our commitment to Pacific-led MEL remains steadfast. We anticipate further insights, refinement, and a deepening sense of unity among our stakeholders. The journey is far from over; it's a continuous exploration of how MEL can be a driving force for positive change.

Stay tuned as we navigate this path, share our progress, and continue shaping the narrative of PWL—one lesson, one insight, and one story at a time.