One crucial mistake we see organizations make is launching into the development of a data collection program without clearly defined project objectives. You can design sophisticated forms, loaded with all sorts of bells and whistles, but if it is not designed to support your project objectives, the tool you select will ultimately disappoint you.
Well-articulated project objectives become a lens through which you can examine each step of your data collection program. But starting with clearly-defined project objectives can be easier said than done. A challenge for all monitoring and evaluation (M&E) professionals is cutting through the competing priorities, obstacles, and stakeholders involved in a given project to pinpoint the core objectives their programs are looking to address.
The ADRA Madagascar team reviews the objectives of their program together before a training session.
Identify your project objectives
In order to define your project objectives, you must start by focusing on the right problem. Our Chief Services Officer, Rowena Luk, learned the hard way that defining a project objective without basing it on a clear and urgent problem will not lead to the highest impact.
Prior to joining Dimagi, Luk worked on building a consultation platform for specialist doctors in hospitals in Ghana. After reflecting on her work, she realized the project had been doomed from the start because it focused on an objective that was not solving the most pressing issue for the hospitals at the time. Rather than supporting better care for all patients through digital medical records, she was focusing on a small percentage that needed specialized care. Doctors told her, “Nevermind the one percent of patients that need to consult with a neuroradiologist. What about the 90 percent that need better continuity of care?”
So even if a successful specialized medicine program would have helped patients in those communities, doctors were receiving dozens of referrals per day for patients in critical condition without any documented medical history. For the doctors, and thus for Luk, the priority was urgent and clear.
Teams need to have the tough conversations early to make sure they’re all on the same page.
Review & confirm your project objectives
Avoiding an experience like the example above starts by critically examining the problem you identified. These questions can help you evaluate whether you are focusing on the right one:
- Which of my stakeholders are ignoring me and why? If you are struggling to get your project champions and supervisors to pay attention to your project, it might be because you are focused on a problem they do not care about. Take a holistic view of the problem by including stakeholders from all levels, and you will experience higher participation in the project over time. This is something Luk realized on that project in Ghana: “Problems that matter will draw the attention of the Minister of Health or the Country Director. They will not just look at the results. They will demand them,” Luk said.
- Are there other projects competing for budget and time? If you are competing against other priorities, look at the problems those other projects are focused on to see if they solve issues you are ignoring. What can you learn from the attention (and money) these projects have earned? Guillaume Foutry, Dimagi partner and project director for Terre des hommes’ IeDA project in Burkina Faso, recommends understanding where your project fits within the priorities of the organizations you are working with: “Ministries of Health have many competing priorities,” said Mr. Foutry. “We found it to be extremely important to take this into account and understand that IeDA was one project among many for them. Try to understand the players, the dynamics within the MoH (Ministry of Health), and who could be champions for the project within the MoH. Also, if you understand their needs and goals, you can work to make your project fit into that: Connect your project to their other initiatives.”
- What else might my partners, funders, or the government require? You often have performance benchmarks to reach in order to receive the next round of funding. Build these into your objective. Government agencies might require certain data to be measured for compliance purposes. Include these, as well. You might even know of other items your program supervisors or partner organizations want to keep track of. A recent World Health Organization checklist for digital health interventions also serves as a great resource for articulating potential project objectives for your program. If you incorporate the needs of all your partners into the foundation of your project, you are more likely to avoid conflicting objectives later on.
Organizing your objective around your partners’ needs and accounting for their other priorities will provide you with reliable guardrails (and investment) as you build out your data collection plan.
Some teams use brainstorming sessions to collect and validate their objectives.
Organize your project objectives
Once you establish your key project objectives, the next step is to outline how you will achieve them. What results do you need to prove in order to call your project a success? When working with governmental organizations, such as USAID, the map of this journey is called a “logical framework” or “results framework.” In essence, they are project to-do lists that make you ask the question of each aspect of your solution: Does this get me closer to achieving my project objectives?
A results framework places your project objectives at the top of the diagram and maps out each of the intermediate results that will add up to its success. In the example below, we will use a malaria campaign to illustrate how this works. Our strategic objective (SO) is to “Decrease malaria-related child mortality rates.” From there, we break down the components of the objective into all its intermediate results (I.R.) and sub-results. A few example intermediate results could be:
- Intermediate Result #1 (I.R. 1): “Percentage of households sprayed with insecticide.”
- Intermediate Result #2 (I.R. 2): “Percentage of households using insecticidal bed nets.”
Additional sub-results would follow that can break down each intermediate result in further detail, including additional objectives to achieve and the tools we would use to achieve them.
This is an example of a basic results framework from a USAID template.
Your organization might not need a results framework to justify your program for the purposes of funding or additional support. However, a results framework still establishes your project’s objective as the core focus of your program and helps you think through all the ways you can review its progress and ultimately achieve success.
The method of data collection you choose will be the way you measure the success of many of these intermediate and sub-results. There will even be cases where the approach you take will aid in improving program outcomes themselves. Mapping out your full set of objectives will help you to align your approach to data collection and service delivery with the core needs of the project.
Focus on your objectives
The process of turning clear and urgent problems into precise project objectives is a crucial step before developing your data collection program. Your project objectives should be at the core of your entire program, and it should be clearly defined and written down in a document such as a results framework. Anyone on your team should be able to read and understand your approach from your results framework, and they should use it throughout the project’s lifespan to evaluate their decisions. Including considerations from partners will also help to ensure your project is given the proper attention and resources required for success.
It can be hard to get a project moving in the right direction. But once you have a clear destination, it is easier to determine whether the next tool or initiative will take you closer to or further away from where you want to be.