A lot of people (on twitter and elsewhere) seemed to like my recent post on Monitoring-and-Evaluation versus Management. That post was a response to the M&E Tech conference in DC two weeks ago. I made the case that the technical specialty of “M&E” in the international development sector is simply part of basic management in the private sector. We only split it off in development because our sector tends to think little of management in general.

It sounds like the idea resonated with what others see in their work, so I’ve got another takeaway from the conference to share. Maybe you won’t like this one as much.

The conference involved a lot of discussion about feedback loops. I love the systems thinking this implies. For a tech-oriented conference, the connection to engineering concepts was intriguing.

In the realm of M&E, we seem to focus on two particular feedback loops:

  • First, as discussed in the previous post: The loop between project outputs/outcomes and management decisions. Tightening and clarifying management information systems can support these feedback loops, helpig us to better manage our programs and organizations.
  • Second: The feedback loop between beneficiaries (participants, customers, end-users, communities, etc.) and implementers/donors/governments. These feedback loops can inform funding decisions and broader strategic choices.

However, the M&E/feedback-loop discussion strikes me as thin because it focuses mostly on information flows. M&E feedback loops give us information to make better decisions. That’s feedback in a conversational sense, but not an engineering sense. These information loops stop short of forcing a change. The real value of feedback should go beyond informing a decision-maker; it should actually ensure that a better decision gets made.

A few of the commenters on the last post made related points. Michael Eddy and others pointed to the systemic incentives facing development managers, while “cbentl2” noted the need for more inclusive and participatory decision-making frameworks. In other words: While big data, mobile data collection, better analytics, etc. might give us a better understanding of what’s needed on the ground, a decision-maker can still face alternative incentives. They can still make the wrong choice. Information is not the only barrier.

I think of this as the distinction between information feedback and power feedback. We can address information feedback through better M&E and tech. Power feedback takes something else. It’s all about politics, accountability, organizing, institution-building, and, well, power.

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