Being a DE Admin – How the Role Shifts When Focusing on Locally-Led DEs

By Chelsie Kuhn and Julie Mandolini-Trummel

Now that we have reminded readers of what DEs are, when DEs are the right fit, and how to determine if their project is ready for a DE, we wanted to share a bit more about one of the essential roles for implementing a DE—the DE Administrator. This post will cover a bit about the history of the DE Admin role, what the DE Admin role is, what they are responsible for, why they should be separate from the DE Evaluator, and how Headlight approaches this role to create an enabling environment for locally-led DEs. 

Role and History of DE Admin

History from MQP

The 2011 Developmental Evaluation text by Michael Quinn Patton is often the text referenced by evaluators to understand and apply DE concepts. Patton mentions some light roles and responsibilities (e.g., a reconnaissance team, an Evaluation Working Group, etc.). Still, this original DE text does not clearly articulate what a DE Administrator is or does. In his conception, three are primary roles —the Evaluator, the Donor, and the Grantee/Organization. As such, it seems that the role of the DE Administrator was conceptualized through later refinement and implementation of the method or implicitly rolled into the DE Evaluator’s responsibilities. The next big push for guidance around this method came through the Developmental Evaluation Pilot Activity for Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (DEPA-MERL) Consortium and USAID’s work on piloting DEs in the international development space starting in 2015. 

DEPA-MERL Additions

From 2016-2020, USAID’s Developmental Evaluation Pilot Activity – Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (DEPA-MERL) consortium (consisting of Social Impact, Search for Common Ground, and the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan) tested the feasibility and effectiveness of developmental evaluation (DE) in the USAID context though three DE pilots. As part of this effort, the consortium recognized that little practical guidance was available to help stakeholders interact with DE for the first time. As such, their Implementing Developmental Evaluation Guide, published with USAID in September 2019, was developed specifically for people conducting DEs, including the Developmental Evaluator and the person managing the overall process, the DE Administrator. According to the Guide, the DE Administrator (Admin) position, responsibilities, and role are as follows:

What is a DE Admin?What are the DE Admin’s Responsibilities?Why should the DE Admin role be separated from the Evaluator?
A person (or group of people) who provides managerial and/or technical support to the Developmental Evaluator. Launching the DE, including:
Working with the funder/donor to develop a preliminary scope of work and budget
Recruiting a Developmental Evaluator or evaluation team

Overseeing the DE, including:
Managing the DE 
Ensuring adherence to agreed-upon budgets, contracts, and timelines
Liaising with the funder/donor
Navigating conflict

Providing technical support to the Evaluator, including:
Serving as a sounding board for thinking through complex and emergent issues
Ideating, talking through possible tools and approaches
Helping them see the “forest through the trees
Re-orienting them to the DE research question(s)
Conducting quality assurance
To ensure high-quality DEs 
-To provide technical guidance (especially in the Evaluator’s areas of relative weakness);
To help the Evaluator maintain an appropriate level of objectivity/equity;
To provide extra support to carry out technical work as needed; 
To serve as an intermediary to help problem solve management challenges that arise; 
-To help the Evaluator maintain an appropriate level of objectivity and equity
To provide consistent managerial and technical support to the Evaluator 
Table 1: The DE Admin Role, Responsibilities, and Justification for Separation

Headlight’s Approach

Our team here at Headlight also conceptualizes the role of the DE Admin as pivotal to the success of a DE in that the Administrator holds the responsibilities mentioned above (e.g., contract management, liaising with the funder(s), ensuring that budget and timeline management is taken care of, etc.). In addition, they are also responsible for building the capacity of the evaluation team through technical backstopping and connecting the evaluation team to essential resources as the DE support evolves. This additional role requires working hand-in-hand with the DE Evaluator Lead to help build skills in data-driven decision-making, evidence synthesis, evaluation methodologies, and implementing adaptation strategies. Multi-faceted skills, especially adaptation facilitation, are crucial for DE implementation as DE is a newer evaluation approach. These skills enable the DE Evaluator to pivot, work with whatever findings may arise, and help other implementers adapt. Through ongoing mentorship, team training, and weekly brainstorming meetings, Headlight’s DE Admins share their experience and rationale in a myriad of ways. This can include ideating creative solutions, observing tradeoffs related to choices, sharing resources on different methods and external evidence, and identifying and closing skill gaps so the local team can use appropriate tools and approaches to address their DE’s needs.

For those implementing DEs, it’s important to note that this approach does take additional time. Still, the more integrated collaboration is worth ensuring the evaluation team has a deep toolbox and knowledge at their disposal to adapt and respond to the complex dynamics of the ebbs and flows of DE implementation.

While we will delve further into distinct roles and responsibilities in the next post, the DE Evaluator Lead is responsible for helping to identify which learning question(s) the evaluation team will pursue. In contrast, the DE Admin provides backstop support to help the brainstorming process and ensure that this aligns with larger project objectives. The DE Evaluator Lead is also responsible for facilitating workshops with the client, presenting findings, collecting and processing data, and drafting reports and other deliverables. The DE Admin provides support by regularly checking in with the DE Evaluator Lead, providing additional support where needed, and helping to implement Quality Assurance and Quality Control processes. Through longer-term DEs, the goal is to increasingly build the Evaluator Lead and team’s knowledge so that they can function more independently and rely on the DE Admin for overarching support and contract management only. 

This approach also aligns with Headlight’s priority to leverage local MEL professionals. In general, there is an overreliance on ex-pats in the evaluation space of international development. Given the newness of DE, ex-pats are often missing as many of the skills/expertise pieces needed to implement a DE as local staff. Capacity building and mentorship required for this approach indeed take resources and time. Still, we have found it is well worth ensuring this iterative learning approach is contextually grounded and owned by those who value the development outcomes most. Taking this approach, upon DE start-up, the DE Admin is responsible for finding and recruiting the local DE Evaluator(s) who has had some exposure to MEL and CLA work along with experience facilitating adaptation and behavior change. Admittedly, this skill set can be hard to find, even among ex-pat professionals who have additional privileges of more expansive access to education, training, and up-and-coming MEL approaches. In place of direct adaptation facilitation experience, other general facilitation skills and experience in dynamic contexts can be helpful since they require professionals to think on their feet and consider how a particular decision may affect other implementation goals. Adaptation facilitation and behavior change knowledge are two more prominent areas of capacity building during implementation. They allow locals to continue building their power to affect change after monitoring, evaluation, learning, or research work is complete.

Some of the many benefits of having a local Evaluator or evaluation team who a DE Admin backstops include: 

  • stronger relationship building and buy-in with communities and local implementers, 
  • appropriately-contextualized findings and recommendations
  • opportunities for sectoral/technical knowledge cross-pollination and learning, and 
  • a sustainable implementation strategy enabling local staff to own their projects and abilities to make an impact beyond the initial period of performance

In our next post, we will further explore the differences and distinctions among the DE Admin, the DE Lead Evaluator, and DE Team Member’s roles and responsibilities.

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