Do our projects need really simple reporting?
They were explaining their “Really Simple Reporting” tool/platform for grass roots real time reporting on aid projects to an audience from UNDP’s Knowledge Management and Web communication teams, to which I managed to get myself an invite (yes you can see the side of my head in this picture!).
Akvo have developed an online platform that allows local partners at project sites to directly share updates on their projects which are then aggregated and can be visualized on a common website, and which can be linked with financial data.
They talked in more detail about a pilot project they are running with the Netherlands Government using their platform to collect information on projects they are funding in the Water sector. Here the government funds water projects with a number of Dutch/International NGOs who in turn fund projects with a number local partners in a wide range of locations. The platform is a way of collecting together reporting from across all of these – to show what is happening on the ground. This complements financial and project information which the Dutch Government now makes public as a signatory of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) but which are very valuable, but also somewhat dry.
Some of the characteristics of the Akvo system are:
- Reporting is spontaneous, done by project workers across all of the work rather than by communication professionals cherry picking select examples.
- Updating can be done simply using a web interface, by e-mail or cellphone. This can also include images and other media as well as text.
- The reporting can aggregated and visualized and linked to funding data, and geotagged.
- The platform is open source so code can be freely shared. Akvo finance their work on the site by operating it as a service and providing support and training.
One of the nice features of using this approach is that there is a constant stream of updates coming from the projects without having a very heavy bureaucratic reporting structure which makes it easier to get timely updates as well as reducing some of the burden on local partners in complex reports. The updates provided are also in the form of “authentic” stories that demonstrate real progress and challenges which makes them more interesting and readable (and potentially more appealing to donors especially taxpayers or individual contributors). Given the project sites provide updates directly onto the site without being edited or filtered through headquarters also adds an element of transparency – especially when linked to transparent financial reporting.
During the pilot phase the Dutch Government are still requesting traditional reports however – so for the moment it is still an additional burden -but the longer term aim is for it to replace periodic project reports this saving the often quite extensive burden of writing and analyzing these. It’s also worth stressing that this system can’t and doesn’t replace formal monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.
Above transparency and grassroots supporting there are other potential benefits once could imagine. For example if multiple donors and intermediary NGOs were to adopt the same platform it would reduce the burden of local partners having to complete reports in multiple different formats for each funder. Another local (and global) benefit would be the ability for project sites to learn from each other by seeing how other sites were progressing, learning from any innovations they were developing and from how they were overcoming shared challenges. similarly from a central level it could be a good way to identify and scale up new approaches or to help flag common problems.
The presentation and the Q&A got me thinking about how such a platform might be used within the UN. On the one hand it could be a good way to better demonstrate real and tangible progress from the UN’s work in a human way by showing impacts on real lives.
At the same time, while some of the UN’s work does go through NGO to local partner channels, a lot of the UN’s resources also go into technical assistance and policy advice and advocacy which can have a large impact, but whose direct human impact is less easily captured and linked to the funding provided. Some thought would be needed on how to adapt this approach to easily capture these impacts in a way that still tells a story.
I could also imagine taking this system a step further in order to collect feedback from beneficiaries (or at least from country counterparts such as the national and local governments that the UN is helping). It could be used to get them to talk about how the UN assistance has helped them in their own words.
I’d say there is certainly strong potential for carrying out a pilot of this to see how it could work within the context of UN development assistance. I’m sure there would be many practical and political challenges, but it could be a great way of opening up the “black box” of how UN assistance works and what is the impact of this on the ground.
(Photo “borrowed” from Frodo van Ostveen – see original on his blog post about this presentation and other meetings they had in New York)