Covid-19 pandemic is shaping the future of Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) in the Public Sector

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Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is one of the key components of governance that has been tested during the Covid19 pandemic.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, countries are experiencing losses in human life and economies are torn asunder. As of the 06th November 2020, South Africa’s Covid-19 cumulative infections have just surpassed 730 000 and over 19 000 people have lost their lives through the pandemic. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell by just over 16% between the first and second quarters of 2020 as a result of the lock-down, leading to an annual growth rate of ‑51%. . Life will never be the same – a “new normal” has been ushered. Notwithstanding this reality, we do not have a luxury to ignore or miss lessons brought to our shores by the pandemic.

History teaches us that pandemics shape systems of governance, testing and revealing the true capacity and resilience of governance systems- all limitations and rigidities are tested. The good news though is that as human beings respond to novel pandemics, new governance capacities are built, and old capacities moulded. For example:

o The cholera pandemic of 1817-1823 highlighted the importance of proper modern sanitation

o The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 stressed the importance of research into outbreaks

o The “Hong Kong Flu” or H3N2 of 1968- 1970 highlighted the importance of vaccines in containing diseases.

o The SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 increased awareness about preventing viral disease transmission

Unfortunately, the same capacities built during the pandemic ‘evaporate’ post-pandemic- “we learn from history that we do not learn from history” as once noted the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The critical question is how do we sustain these capacities post-pandemic?

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is one of the key components of governance that has been tested during the Covid19 pandemic. M&E is an integral part informing decision-making and accountability in institutions. To postulate on the future of M&E, we ought to look at the manner in which Covid-19 is impacting the M&E space, and secondly, the capacities that have been built in response to the pandemic and thus, capacities, that define the future of M&E.

The pre-covid19 world has largely been characterised by public administration that was deeply rooted in compliance-driven culture in which planning was another compliant exercise where few entities embarked in a serious reflective process inherently required in strategy development. For most entities, strategy development was informed by baselines and adjustment of problematic indicators to the satisfaction of the regularity audit at the expense of planning for impact.

Covid-19 is forcing entities to take stock and reflect carefully in the way entities develop business plans and strategies. Strategic plan and business plans must respond to the reality of Covid-19 -it is no longer a business as usual. Even from the budgeting side, incremental budgeting which aims at adjusting the budget based on inflation was dropped in favour of zero-based budgeting process which start from zero-base and ensures that every year key items are prioritised.

Together, all the above changes forced the administration to review strategic plans informed by ‘lived’ circumstances on the ground rather than some abstract logic in the M&E manual, and in the process infused capacity for agility in strategic management.

Secondly, governance structures set to respond to Covid-19 demonstrated a serious endeavour towards data-informed decision making in certain areas. The risk adjusted levels model and deployment of health resources was informed by data in a lot of ways, either from WHO or National Institute of Communicable disease, among other institutions. This is an important capacity that the State cannot afford to lose.

Of course, the pertinent questions that the state must answer is to what extent does the State see data or information as an asset/ or value? And How does it demonstrate this appreciation? How can the state strengthen data quality? Can we use other ways/formats in the packaging of data? – like dashboards, infographics, etc?

Moreover, a lot of entities have invested in automated systems to carry out monitoring of performance remotely to minimize transmission of Covid-19. While the 4th industrial revolution wave has been compelling organisations to automate, but Covid-19 is a serious catalyst. Notwithstanding the general challenges associated with automation, this is a critical time to modernise some antique systems in the public sector.

Spatial referencing in performance reporting has always been one of the key requirements in reporting, but never accentuated, but with the advent of Covid-19, statutory bodies expect performance to be referenced as much as possible. Spatial referencing enables the state to identify areas where most and least impact is being made, but it also enables the quantification of this impact.

There is a possibility that Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, while it is causing disturbances and loss of life, we must never forget that as we devise and implement measures to cope with the pandemic, capacities are built. The question is, how can we sustain these capacities such as agility in strategic management and embracing of technology and innovation in M&E, in the post-covid19 world.

Finally, there is sometimes a perception that M&E is just a compliance-driven exercise obsessed with clean audits, rather than accelerating service delivery and mitigating rampant corruption. Public is rightfully asking questions such as: “If M&E is useful, where is M&E systems in the widely reported PPE tender corruption?” As long as M&E has not sufficiently answered the question, what is the role of M&E in accelerating service delivery and fighting corruption, M&E will continue to be seen as a compliant driven exercise.

By Sifiso Ndaba is a public servant and a Master of Management in the field of Governance candidate at Wits School of Governance. He writes in his personal capacity.