By Maxine Secskas, CLAME Associate, Headlight Consulting Services, LLC
This is the second in a 2-part series on USAID Performance Management Plans.
This installment in our blog continues the discussion around USAID Performance Management Plans (PMP), begun in our previous post, What is A USAID Performance Management Plan?, which explored the history of PMPs to help practitioners understand the intention and function of these plans. In this post, we reflect on our recent experience supporting a Mission in writing a PMP, particularly on the integration of CLA throughout the plan. We hope to offer some lessons learned from our experience to help guide other practitioners beginning the PMP-writing process.
Our Recent Experience
Headlight is a subcontractor on a Monitoring and Evaluation support contract for a USAID Mission as the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) partner. After the Mission’s new Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) was approved in late 2020, the Program Office began collaborating with Mission staff and the M&E support contract on developing the PMP according to the latest guidance, which requires CLA integration throughout. (If you are not sure what this new guidance is or how it departs from previous PMP guidance, please check out the previous blog post).
Before Headlight’s involvement, the Program Office and M&E platform consulted with Mission staff, and especially A/CORs, to finalize an alignment of the existing portfolio of their Activities with the CDCS Results Framework and to select both performance and contextual indicators that can adequately measure the Mission’s progress toward achieving the CDCS results.
Headlight supported the Mission in facilitating a workshop with staff and implementing partners (IPs) to discuss the CDCS learning priorities and existing learning questions, solicit their feedback, and gather additional questions they felt would be useful to inform the PMP. The workshop concluded with a group prioritization process, which confirmed the inclusion of the original learning questions from the CDCS, as well as some additional emergent questions. After the learning questions were finalized, we worked with the Mission to consolidate and synthesize them into final learning priorities.
What is a learning priority?
The agreed-upon learning priorities and questions are the backbone of a PMP and guide the Mission in assessing its progress towards reaching the development objectives as outlined in the CDCS. According to the USAID Learning Lab 2021 PMP How-To Note, learning priorities are” key themes or topics critical to programmatic and operational decisions and implementation… Learning priorities can include emerging patterns, crosscutting themes, knowledge gaps in the existing evidence base, critical assumptions, identified (or emergent) risks, and points of connection with scenario planning or with context monitoring. Learning priorities come from various sources and inform learning agendas.” and learning questions are “specific, answerable, need-to-know questions that can be answered through monitoring, evaluation, research, or other analysis to address learning priorities incrementally. Several learning questions can cluster under a single learning priority and can contribute to a broader learning agenda or plan.”
For example, a learning priority might be: Understanding the relationship between the inclusion of marginalized groups and social cohesion.
And it may include learning questions such as: How has USAID supported better civic and political integration of women, youth, and marginalized populations? Or: How and to what extent have USAID efforts contributed to supporting civil society and private sector networking and partnerships?
Headlight supported the Mission in facilitating its final PMP workshop. The goal of the workshop was to continue to familiarize Mission staff with the learning priorities and to generate and prioritize monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) activities to include in the PMP. Participants worked in small groups to discuss the learning priorities and to brainstorm how MEL activities, either already underway or new ones, would help address the learning questions.
Once we finished this discussion and prioritization process with Mission staff, we began to draft the full PMP in collaboration with the Program Office and our partners on the M&E platform. We found it helpful to map the Monitoring, Evaluation, and CLA activities for each learning question, informed by the inputs from the final PMP workshop and discussions between Mission staff and partners.
Our final PMP structure, which aligns with the USAID Learning Lab guidance, was:
- Introduction with an overview of the Mission’s CDCS and a description of the PMP development process,
- Sections for each learning priority, with sub-sections detailing the key learning questions and how each priority will be addressed through Monitoring, Evaluation, and CLA activities,
- A performance management approach outlining the approach and responsibilities for the Monitoring, Evaluation, and CLA activities,
- A task schedule,
- And annexes listing indicators, PMP modifications, and scheduled evaluations.
Now that the initial PMP has been finalized, the Mission can use it to guide the monitoring, evaluation, and CLA activities suggested in it. Headlight and the M&E support contract are supporting the facilitation of the proposed CLA activities and continue integrating the learning priorities and Learning Questions into Mission discussions and actions. For example, the Mission’s latest portfolio review process asked technical offices to speak to how they contributed to the learning questions. Also, the Program Office is starting to align evaluation design with the learning priorities, making sure that the evaluation questions will draw out any connections between the activity outputs and outcomes and the Results Framework. Hopefully, by using the PMP as a guide and an inspiration, the Mission will continue to incorporate learning into all aspects of its programming.
Advice for Anticipated Challenges
Challenge: Getting Mission technical staff to be invested in learning activities
Solution: This is a potential issue for the Program Office as well. We recommend leaning into collaboration with the Program Office on incorporating consideration of learning priorities in as many regular activity processes, such as evaluations and reporting, as possible.
Challenge: Most of the data collection and learning is done by Implementing Partners, and Mission staff may not have or take the time to incorporate learnings from each activity report.
Solution: Everyone involved in USAID implementation have different connection points to a PMP, and everyone has a different lens when they approach learning. It would help all Mission staff and Partners to take a broader view of how their activities fit into the broader Results Framework and goals for the Mission.
Challenge: PMPs are supposed to be living documents that are revisited and adapted as new activities are used or needed, but developing a PMP can be laborious and time-consuming, so when it is done, people feel like moving on from it.
Solution: To keep the PMP in staff’s consideration, the Program Office should make frequent use of and reference the PMP regularly, and Missions could have a regular learning function around the PMP. By emphasizing the use of the PMP to provide evidence that can inform budget discussions, the Program Office may be able to create interest and buy-in from a wider group of staff.
Additional Reflections from our experience:
- Our collaborative and inclusive approach to prioritizing learning priorities and learning questions has helped this PMP remain relevant to programming a year later (so far)
- Including IPs in workshops helps them get insight into the broad Mission portfolio and how their activities tie together
- While there is no template from the USAID Learning Lab for the new PMP format, it is not an issue. The ADS 201 outlines what is required in a PMP, but otherwise, it is up to each Mission to format it in whatever way makes the most sense for them.
- It would be ideal to have full integration of the Results Framework, the learning priorities, learning questions, and the Indicators that each activity tracks. So towards that ideal, we always look to find a balance between an integration of learning ideas and effectiveness for use by staff currently.
Useful PMP Resources
ADS Chapter 201: Operational Policy for the Program Cycle (PMP section starts on page 46)
If you have any questions about organizational development and learning or need help integrating CLA into a Performance Management Plan, Headlight would love to support you! We have the breadth and depth of experience to tailor-meet your needs. For more information about our services, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Headlight is a certified woman-owned small business and therefore eligible for sole source procurements. We can be found on the Dynamic Small Business Search or on SAM.gov via our name or DUNS number (081332548).