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Where next for evaluation?

Oscar A. Garcia

By: Oscar A. Garcia
Director, UNDP/IEO

June 2022

The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) of UNDP is so named for a reason. The independence of the office is vital: it asserts the role of the evaluation function in the structure of UNDP, to strengthen checks and balances and improve the performance of the organization as a whole. This function is as vital for the credibility of the organization as it is for the effectiveness of its programmes.

When the pandemic hit, all missions to programme countries were suspended. Data collection and dissemination were more difficult to carry out, and were limited to remote means. Under these circumstances, the relevance of the evaluation function was suddenly at stake.

Evaluation should never be reduced to a sort of box-ticking exercise. Its power lies in its capacity to reflect on the performance of an organization, reinforce what is working and course correct where necessary. We needed to act decisively, and fast.

Reflecting and regrouping

The first thing the IEO did was to release guidance for the conduct of evaluation during the crisis. One of the recommendations was to improve the use of existing data, which is something the IEO was itself exploring at length.

During these explorations, the office developed a new product: rapid reviews of existing evidence of UNDP’s support to programme countries to recover from previous crises. These papers, known as ‘Reflections’, were short and easy to read, thoroughly researched, and firmly focused on lessons learned from the past that could be attributed to the present circumstances. They were translated and disseminated to country offices, for utility and accessibility. Regular webinars were organized, and an important contribution to knowledge management in times of crisis took place.

The Reflections series showcased the relevance of evaluation and evaluative evidence to the global response to the pandemic. The papers covered topics of high importance at that moment, including support to the health sector, the extension of social protection and livelihood restoration, governance and anticorruption measures in times of crisis, the role of local governance for service provision including waste management, and electoral processes in the midst of crises. The Reflections also explored ways to increase support to digitalization, and how to better manage natural resources for a more sustainable recovery.

As the pandemic progressed, the extent of the challenges faced deepened. The IEO took stock and, at the end of 2020, embarked on a strategic planning exercise to address these challenges. We developed a vision and a theory of change establishing the inroads to develop a credible, more influential and independent evaluation function. A multi-year strategy was developed, and its subsequent programme of work was approved by the UNDP Executive Board. The main concepts behind the strategy were responsiveness, innovation and systems thinking.

Projecting and innovating

Looking forward, the IEO needs to be more responsive to the evolving development needs of UNDP, member states, and the global evaluation community. The development crises faced by the global community - including rising inequalities, the effects of climate change, armed conflict and pandemics - are increasingly complex, and their compound effects need to be recognized and addressed comprehensively, including by a responsive evaluation function. This would be not possible with a business-as-usual approach.

Innovation is fundamental to addressing these complex development challenges. The required change will need innovations across the board: in the way we conduct evaluations, collect data, conduct analysis and disseminate products. The IEO recognizes the critical role of information and communications technologies in this new way of working, and the role that can be played by machine learning and artificial intelligence in evaluations. Methodological innovation is also required, for which improvements in the design of the IEO data architecture become a prerequisite.

Finally, the strategy would not be successfully implemented unless the office makes a concerted effort to adopt a systems-thinking approach to evaluation, in which the evaluator changes their role from an external observer to an integral part of the system. In this approach, the evaluator becomes part of the internal workings of the system, constantly assessing and contributing to its improvement.

The three concepts of responsiveness, innovation and systems-thinking are embedded in the IEO’s 2022-2025 programme of work. They will strengthen the evaluation function for UNDP to fulfil its mandate and support people on the road to a more inclusive and sustainable future.