Challenges in MEL: Valuing Women’s Voices and Experiences

I won’t lie – it’s been difficult to feel positive about the gains we’ve made towards a more equal society this International Women’s Day. There are the regressive effects of the global pandemic, which have seen women disproportionately lose paid work while their childcare and home responsibilities have sky-rocketed as schools locked-down. And in Australia, we’ve also spent a dispiriting few weeks watching our political leaders systemically fail to listen to and value the experiences of women.

So I’m taking this opportunity to practice something we learned to do in 2020 – taking time out to reflect on the positives and the things we can control – how we can ensure that in our world of MEL (Measurement, Evaluation and Learning), the voices and experiences of women are being heard and acted upon.

Using Shawna Wakefield and Daniela Koerppen’s excellent 2017 paper as a guide, Applying Feminist Principles to Program Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning, I can proudly say that our approach is fundamentally feminist.

As a matter of course, Clear Horizon promotes genuine participation, uses participatory techniques and fosters co-ownership throughout the MEL process. We recognise that evaluation is political, and that it has the power to influence significant change. As MEL practitioners, we need to be aware of the both the impact and biases we can bring to our MEL work and the broader social impact space. According to Wakefield and Koerppen, a feminist approach involves “self-awareness and potential biases of the professionals and institutions involved; looking at the importance of trust, time and resources to develop both the [MEL] processes and the capacities required to undertake them, and last but not least, accountability and continuous learning.”

For us, this means interrogating the gendered nature of our MEL framing, the way we do our questioning, analysis and reporting, and being on the lookout to ensure that any structural inequities of gender imbalances are not further entrenched by the act of evaluation. A good example of applying feminist thinking in MEL is when we are developing indictors for our measurement systems. As evaluators, we need to be aware of the choices and decisions that we make, considering how these are “inevitably shaped by the gender and power dynamics in a given context”.

For example, often when reporting on educational outcomes, the default is to look at measures such as the proportion of students who successfully completed learning. Which might paint a very different picture than if we were to look at the proportion of girls versus the proportion of boys successfully completing their learning. Or if we were to look at the types of subjects completed by gender, and whether the typecasts of STEM  subjects for boys and “softer” topics for girls are still being played out with very real impacts on future career choices and outcomes. Using measures disaggregated by gender, for example, can provide deeper insights into the differing experiences and opportunities afforded to girls and women.

I was also immensely pleased to see one of our flagship techniques, Most Significant Change (MSC), recognised as a methodology with the potential to challenge inequalities and influence gender relations when supported by appropriate MEL systems. Clear Horizon often draws on MSC as a qualitative evaluation tool, largely due to its participatory, inclusive and empowering approach, ensuring the voices of the most disadvantaged can be given equal weight and providing space to interrogate any programmatic changes realised beyond the knowledge or lived experience of those developing the metrics of impact. It also values listening and story-telling qualities, and offers the ability to influence change through learning.

And while the above gives me hope in terms of our practices – while not perfect – being a good model for listening to and valuing the experiences of women, we’ve still got a lot a work to do to support feminist MEL approaches in the broader social impact space. Just as well we’re up for the challenge.


People, ping pong and healthier lunches – what we’re looking forward to in 2021

For many of us, the start of 2021 has felt very much the same as the last few months of 2020: there’s still much uncertainty and many things put on hold as we wait for a global vaccination roll-out.

In the interim, we thought we’d put into practice one of the lessons learnt from 2020 – time for reflection and focusing on the small, good things to get us through. So we asked the Clear Horizon team what learnings from 2020 they’ll be bringing into the new year, what they’re looking forward to.

“Spending time together face to face in our new office. Our end of year get-together was so fantastic, and while we have come to love many aspects of virtual meetings, and have honed our online facilitation, it was a reminder that it can be surprisingly lovely to meet in person. So now comes the year where we perfect the hybrid model?”
– Jess Dart, Founding Director, Health Futures Lead

“I’m looking forward to graduating and finishing my studies this year. I’m also looking forward to going back into the office and seeing everyone again and getting back in the routine of exercising as well as our epic ping pong battles at lunch.”
– Kim Saldago, BI Developer

“It feels like last year pushed us 10 years into the future. We’ve all be dragged (some kicking and screaming) into online learning. Many of us have experienced how great it can be when done well and how truly awful it is when done poorly (somehow worse than my first year chemistry lecturer who scrawled illegibly on a blackboard with his back to the room mumbling to himself). So this year, I’m excited about continuing to explore how to design and deliver truly engaging participatory online learning experiences that surpass face-to-face learning – yes, it’s possible!”
– Cam Elliott, Head of the Clear Horizon Academy

“When we began working remotely, we decided to start each day with a 15 minute team check-in – who’s doing what, who needs help with what. We found it so valuable that we’re keeping this habit, despite returning to a physical office. It’s made us more attuned to what’s going on for each of us, each day, and helps us better share the load in terms of our team’s work.”
– Lee-Anne Molony, Director

“I am looking forward to the new normal of being back in the office a few days a week and working alongside colleagues but also keeping up the exercise and (the more healthier!) eating habits I established whilst working from home.”
– Jenny Riley, Chief Digital & Data Officer

What it takes to build a Liveable Company

If this year has proven anything, it’s that we are capable of change and of rising to new challenges. In that spirit, we’re challenging ourselves to better walk the talk and build a liveable company. But what does that mean?

Clear Horizon looks to Health Futures

How COVID-19 is forcing a re-examination of systemic injustices, and why we’ve created Health Futures to help social impact initiatives adapt.

With the onset of COVID-19, health has been spurred into public consciousness. Many of us have been subjected to the clinical and infection-control aspects of the disaster response: social distancing, masks, drive-through testing. But we’re also now made keenly aware of the complexities of public health, the way it overlaps sectors, and the way the pandemic is exacerbating many of the issues that social impact programs are already grappling to address.

For one, COVID-19 has brought home the importance of cultivating wellbeing – not just preventing illness – and the ways in which wellbeing is facilitated by social connection, stable income, and access to green space, among many other factors.

In addition, policy discussions surrounding the pandemic in Australia have surfaced the many pre-existing systemic inequities that also manifest as health inequities. We’re seeing renewed debate about an increasingly casualised workforce without sick leave, the privatisation and deregulation of aged care, the inadequacy of social benefits, the detention of people seeking asylum (and lack of a safety net for those living in the community), the cramped and inhospitable conditions of public housing, the difficulties facing those fleeing domestic violence, not to mention the widespread chronic illness (and other structural violence) experienced by First Nations peoples. The fact that health is also a justice issue has never been more apparent.

The social distancing requirements of the pandemic response have also accelerated the development and growth of digital health products and telehealth services. These initiatives are not just continuing to provide the same services in a different medium, but many are also taking advantage of their format to reach groups that previously may have been excluded (such as people in regional areas) and to intervene in new and creative ways. Many of these digital programs support behaviour change or provide resources, particularly in the areas of mental health, chronic and lifestyle diseases, substance addictions and diagnosis/screening.

Clear Horizon is responding to the emerging needs and opportunities in the social change sector through the creation of a dedicated Health Futures team specialising in innovative health and wellbeing initiatives. The new business group will focus on mental health promotion; chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke and obesity; substance addictions; domestic violence; and health systems intersections, for example connecting people to disability support services. We’re most keen to assist both domestic and international initiatives that are community-led, have a digital component, involve developmental evaluation, take a systems approach to change, and/or involve innovative health service designs and integration.

Our approach will be to tackle problems holistically, offering cross-sectoral expertise and a solid grounding in systems thinking. This enables us to better draw links between apparently unrelated processes or concepts, as well as to consider the effect of context on an initiative and how it might interact with broader systems. And as the demand for digital health initiatives continues to grow as part of the “new normal”, we’ll be drawing on our Digital team’s expertise to support the technical intricacies of developing and testing digital health products, as well as their privacy and data storage implications. This is a crucial consideration for confidential health data.

We’ve already had the opportunity to work on some cutting-edge projects in the health and wellbeing space. One of our long-term partnerships, with the Fay Fuller Foundation and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, involves developmental evaluation services for Our Town, which is a twelve-year initiative that takes a community-led approach to addressing mental health and wellbeing. These meaningful, strategic partnerships are where we believe we can achieve the best health and wellbeing outcomes for people and communities, and the organisations looking to support them.

The Health Futures team is led by Dr Jess Dart (Founding Director), and our members are Samiha Barkat (Principal Consultant), Edgar Daly (Senior Consultant) and Alessandra Prunotto (Consultant). To find out more about our services and training, please get in touch.

The Cook and the Chef – How Designers & Evaluators can Collaborate or Clash in the Kitchen

What happens when Designers and Evaluators start cooking up social innovations together? Is it a case of the Cook and the Chef, where there’s collaboration throughout, or is it more My Kitchen Rules, with paring knives out? Here are four kitchen scenarios we’ve observed – but we want to know: which kitchen are you cooking in?

Part 2 – Jazz Players of the Evaluation World: Meet our experts on Systems-Change and Place-Based Approaches.

In this article, we ask Dr Jess Dart, Anna Powell and Dr Ellise Barkley about their top tips for overcoming some of the key challenges of evaluating systems change and place-based approaches, and how to get everyone on the same songsheet.

The Jazz Players of the Evaluation World: Meet our experts on Systems-Change and Place-Based Approaches.

A conversation with Dr Jess Dart, Anna Powell and Dr Ellise Barkley about the challenges and opportunities presented by systems change and place-based approaches, and why evaluators in the space are truly the jazz players of the evaluation world.

Developing a Theory of Change – is there a ‘right’ way?

Considered by many change-makers as the ultimate ‘road map’ when it comes to creating social impact, a good Theory of Change is an integral part of any intervention or initiative aiming to affect change. We asked experts from different fields about the approaches they use and uncovered some significant differences, which begged the question – is there a right way to develop a theory of change?

Changing self and system in COVID-19

This article was written by Anna Powell and Alessandra Prunotto

How do you change a system that is in a state of flux – and at times, in chaos?

The systems change initiatives we support at Clear Horizon are now tackling this question. Before COVID-19, the typical patterns of systems were very difficult to shift – in many respects, the systems we live and work in here in Australia have been built over more than 200 years. Now, they move like quicksilver.

The pandemic has required systems change-makers to reorient themselves in systems that are in flux. Change-makers are working out new opportunities and leverage points to affect positive change now. (Let’s not waste a good crisis.)

Of the many potential systems levers in this context, one meaningful area to focus on can be how you yourself show up in the system. While systems change leaders do this all the time, during a time of heightened instability working on yourself helps keeps you anchored to purpose and hold steady through the state of flux. Developmental evaluators can play a crucial role in supporting this reflective and action-orientated process.

You are the system

According to The Water of Systems Change by Kania, Kramer and Senge (2018), systems change requires change-makers to identify the intangible aspects of a system, including relationships, power distribution, institutional norms and constraints, attitudes, and assumptions.

One of these intangibles is mental models, a powerful lever for shifting the conditions holding a system in place. Mental models are ‘Habits of thought—deeply held beliefs and assumptions and taken-for-granted ways of operating that influence how we think, what we do, and how we talk (Kania, Kramer & Senge 2018).

Deeply implicit, mental models are tricky to identify, especially in yourself and those like you. They are also confronting to challenge, because you have to question the power structures that have shaped these mental models – often structures you have benefited from in some way.

But it has to happen. Systems change is ultimately change in people. Mental models are held by individuals, and individuals are fractals of a system. Learning and change on a personal and team level is a part of systems change.

Triple-loop learning for self-reflection

Reflection can be uncomfortable. In a group setting, it needs high levels of vulnerability and trust. This process can be softened by a neutral developmental evaluator playing the role of ‘curious’ friend – someone close enough to create a sense of warmth, but far back enough to identify cognitive dissonance.

These difficult reflections need to be systematic and driven by pertinent questions. Mark Cabaj’s paper Evaluating Systems Change Results introduces a concept called ‘triple-loop learning’ that we’ve found useful to be more deliberate when reflecting on the self in the system.

In our previous blog post, we explained how single and double loops of learning are useful for strategic learning in emergent contexts. Cabaj explains that while these loops deal respectively with learning about what we are doing (implementation) and what we are thinking (strategy/context), triple-loop learning deals with how we are being. It directs us to ask questions about our emotional triggers, our habitual responses, our social norms/dynamics and our individual and shared values and narratives.

Brave government: triple-loop learning in action

The value of this triple-loop learning was highlighted through our work in supporting a government client with their efforts to change the way they work with communities. They were aiming to shift an entrenched power dynamic in how government works with communities and transform ways of working within their own offices.

As our staff built a trusting relationship with this government team, we together identified their positioning of power and authority as a key systems lever. Before COVID-19, we began to help facilitate these reflections on how they were stepping into their power, moving more into the tricky space of personal and team adaptive work. Seeing senior officials confronting their own discomfort was a testament to their commitment to change.

The team identified that their adaptive work and reflection meant that they would be able to take forward new ways of being and working wherever they went in government. By starting to build a tolerance of the discomfort needed to learn and change, they were modelling the learning culture they wanted to see across government. They were moving towards a new mode of ‘being’ in a system that they could take with them no matter which department they found themselves in. A systematic triple-loop reflection process was key to identifying these valuable, yet intangible, moves toward meaningful change.

Adapting programs in a time of rapid change

COVID-19 is a time of flux. In a matter of months, we’ve seen social and economic upheaval across the globe.

In times of uncertainty and transition, change-making organisations need to be agile and responsive. Our survival and our ability to help others depends on it. With a few tweaks, a well-embedded measurement, evaluation and learning (MEL) system can be a vital resource for adapting programs in a time of rapid change.

Theory of change and learning loops

As practitioners, we are well aware of the benefits of MEL for adapting programs, albeit in more stable periods.

Theory of change processes help organisations work out what to do, what to measure, and how to set up the systems for collecting and interpreting data. Most programs use two “loops” of learning to make decisions, to use a concept popularised by Chris Argis in the early 90s.

The first is “single loop” learning, which is related to implementation. This is usually utilised by program staff closest to the action who will frequently reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

The second is “double loop” learning, which is related to broader strategy. This learning process is usually done by the decision-makers at the helm of an organisation, who need to reflect on whether the goals and activities are still relevant to the context and whether their big assumptions still hold true. These double loop decisions happen less often, maybe every few months or twice a year.

When the context is constantly shifting, there is an even greater need to take a learning and adaptive planning approach. In the context of COVID-19, we’ve identified two key changes to make. The first is to shorten the cycles of data collection and feedback. The second is to ramp up your double-loop learning.

Let’s unpack how you’d change your approach to learning and adaptive planning by walking through an example we often use to teach theory of change at Clear Horizon Academy: the carpark model.

An example of adaptive planning: the carpark model

Imagine that you’re the owner of a carpark in the CBD. Before the pandemic, your main challenge was that cars were being stolen and this was discouraging parkers. Your vision for your carpark was that it would be safe and profitable, free from car thieves and full of happy customers.

You had created a theory of change to transform your carpark, and through this process decided that adding CCTV cameras was the one major influencing activity that would increase the number of customers.

A diagram of the theory of change for the carpark model, showing causal pathways from the influencing activities to the broader goals.

The carpark model’s theory of change.

For a while, this had worked. Not only had the CCTV cameras deterred thieves, but they had also attracted more parkers. This had created more eyes in the carpark, creating ‘natural surveillance’ and reducing opportunity for theft. Times were good, and your change program was working.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

Now with everyone working from home, there are a lot less people driving into the city. There’s a hospital nearby, so a few workers are still parking here. But each day there are less customers, and theft is starting to spike.

You realise that COVID-19 has created major changes in your context that are inhibiting your goals. So you decide to shorten your cycles of data collection and feedback, with a focus on double loop learning.

You take the following steps:

Step 1

The first aim is to gather data about this new context, with more regularity. You set up systems for single loop learning: daily reports from the carpark attendants on their observations, as well as pulse surveys for customers to understand what is concerning them. You set up a weekly time to review CCTV footage to try to spot patterns in the thefts and understand their cause.

Step 2

Armed with information, now is the time to use double loop learning to revisit the theory of change. Are your broader goals still relevant? Do we still need a safe and profitable car park in this context?

You determine your goals are still relevant. However, you note there is a need to broaden the definition of safety. From your weekly scans, you realised your customers are concerned about hygiene in the carpark – so you redefine safety in terms of security as well as health.

Step 3

Now you’re moving toward adjusted goals, you need to reconsider your activities. Will they work and be effective in this new context? What might hinder or help each causal pathway to your goals?

You realise that one of your major assumptions is no longer holding up. In a pre-COVID-19 world, you assumed that more people in the carpark would create natural surveillance, discouraging thieves and attracting more customers.

But from your data scans, you find out that a bustling carpark is having the opposite effect! Customers are concerned about being close to others and having more people touching the ticket machines, which increases their chance of catching COVID-19.

Step 4

You come up with additional strategies to work with your revised assumptions. To balance between natural surveillance and social distancing, you prohibit parking in every second car space. You also install contactless payment technology and put up signs highlighting your public health-consciousness. As you begin to implement, you use your new single-loop feedback systems to check whether these strategies are working.

What we can learn from this example

For any organisation trying to continue their important change work, this approach can greatly help us with adapting programs in a time of rapid change like COVID-19. Regularly gathering implementation data and scheduling time to re-assess your strategy will set you up to do your best in this chaotic period.