What role can Systems Thinking play in understanding and deepening National Monitoring and Evaluation Systems?

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“In this journey, I realised that Systems Thinking is increasingly gaining ground as a potential approach for improving the evaluation tool kit. Additionally, in our CLEAR AA Theory of Change logic model, we have identified the need to explore how Systems Thinking can be utilised in strengthening evaluation, to find novel ways of seeing through complexity. This challenge motivated me to explore what the ‘buzz’ around Systems Thinking is all about…” states Dr Precious Tirivanhu.


Systems Thinking – the new buzz word by evaluators.

In my career as a Researcher at the Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results for Anglophone Africa (CLEAR AA), I have come across a multiplicity of theories, methodologies and tools that are applied in addressing a range of social challenges. In this journey, I realised that Systems Thinking is increasingly gaining ground as a potential approach for improving the evaluation tool kit. Additionally, in our CLEAR AA Theory of Change logic model, we have identified the need to explore how Systems Thinking can be utilised in strengthening evaluation, to find novel ways of seeing through complexity. This challenge motivated me to explore what the ‘buzz’ around Systems Thinking is all about…

Systems Thinking is a conceptual framework for problem-solving that considers problems in their entirety. Although there are numerous paradigms and methodologies, Systems Thinking encompasses three dimensions: understanding connectedness and interrelationships among system components; engaging multiple perspectives; and reflection on boundaries. In recent years, there has been considerable talk on the utility of systems thinking in evaluation. The American Evaluation Association for example released a ground breaking special edition on Systems Thinking, entitled: Systems Thinking Concepts in Evaluation: An Expert Anthology in 2007, edited by Bob Williams and Iraj Imam href=”http://www.amazon.com/Systems-Concepts-Evaluation-Expert- Anthology/dp/0918528216. This anthology blends systemic concepts and approaches with the discipline and practice of evaluation.

A number of articles have been published by journals including, Systems Thinking and Evaluation by Richard Hummelbrunner (2011) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1356389011421935. In addition, there has been a number of Blogs around the role of systems thinking in enriching evaluation including http://www.betterevaluation.org/en/blog/systems_thinking. These developments have sparked interest by evaluators to explore the utility of Systems Thinking.

I believe that the key reason why Systems Thinking has become popular among evaluators is the assertion that it can solve ‘complex’ and ‘messy’ societal issues that more traditional evaluation methodologies may not be able to address adequately. It is therefore important for evaluators to identify ‘complex’ issues and explore how the plethora of systems thinking tools can be applied.

The emergence of National Monitoring and Evaluation Systems

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of National Monitoring and Evaluation Systems (NMESs) in Africa, as a result of pressures for most governments to meet set targets for achieving sustainable development goals, improve governance and management within the public sector and improve accountability. These systems are fundamental for identifying causes for success or failure leading to necessary policy adjustments, and better designed and targeted policies and programs with multiple pathways to effect change.

In my view, NMESs may be perceived as ‘complex’ systems since they have a number of sub-systems, multiple stakeholders and exogenous factors outside the realm of control. They work both across and within sectors, across various levels of government, with interlinked interactions among planning, budgeting, and implementation functions. These relationships are powerful drivers of change. Their success will likely depend on interaction and feedback among the various subsystems.

To exacerbate this complexity, the various stakeholders within the systems have differing values and interests which may require critical interrogation. The systems operate within turbulent and dynamic socio-political and socio-economic environments which make it hard to pre-determine outcomes, calling for the need for continuous adaptive management.

………and what role can Systems Thinking play in deepening National Monitoring and Evaluation Systems?

The practical application of systems thinking and its tools in evaluation remains fuzzy and its utility in NMESs requires further exploration. In this regard, it might be helpful to assess the potential contribution of Systems Thinking in line with the three dimensions outlined earlier.

Reflection on boundaries: Systems Thinking may provide tools for evaluating the emerging design of NMESs through boundary critique to understand the characteristics of functional NMESs (since they are emerging differently under different contexts) tools such as Critical Systems Heuristics “http://oro.open.ac.uk/21299/1/systems-approaches_ch6.pdf are useful in this regard. Boundaries form what is viewed as pertinent in the design of NMESs.

Connectedness and interrelationships amongst system components: Systems Thinking may provide insights towards understanding the holistic functionality of NMESs. This will allow evaluators to explore interrelationships and ‘emergent properties’ among various components. Causal Loop Diagrams may be effective in this regard, see for example, Maani and Cavana (2007) https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Systems-Thinking- System-Dynamics- Managing-Change-Complexity/1877371033. Such an understanding might be useful for example, in deepening NMESs from central government to other subsystems (including line ministries and civil society).

Engaging multiple perspectives: Utilization of evaluation knowledge and results remains a challenge for NMESs. The dialogic engagement of multiple stakeholders using Systems Thinking tools might provide useful insights and enhance development of effective strategies for improved results and knowledge utilization within NMESs for promoting evidence-based policy making. Critical Systems Thinking might provide tools for such multi stakeholder engagements. See for example: What is this thing called Critical systems Thinking by Gerald Midgley (1995) https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1- 4757-9883- 8_7

Now that I have stimulated your Systems Thinking mental model, you may find it a useful framework for exploring complex societal issues within NMESs. As an evaluator, you may wish to identify potentially complex issues and explore systemic tools to address them. Systems Thinking will allow you to apply a multi-methodological approach which provides evaluators the opportunity to combine various systemic tools to the evaluation problem at hand. Read more: http://markd.nl/content/references/1997Mingers.pdf.

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