Harvesting INSPIRED outcomes

If one of the main lessons learned from practice is that a dialogue process cannot pre-establish its outcomes, as this would clearly put into question the true openness of the dialogue, how can we know that it has yielded fruit and has been worth the effort? The reply to this question is rather easy: by stopping for a moment to look backwards and see what has actually been achieved.

However, such an ex-post assessment clashes head-front against the usual approach adopted by most practitioners and donors, who are used –and often obliged– to plan everything in advance, so as to organise their workaround objectives and expected results that respond to a given logic of intervention or theory of change. The reasons behind this emphasis on planning are many and often legitimate – bureaucratic coordination, foreseeability of budgetary allocations, division of labour, etc. – but can seldom compensate for the stiffness that they introduce in processes that need to adapt to an ever-changing context. This holds especially true for a dialogue process, which not only has to adopt the kind of adaptive management tools that are being preconized by an increasing number of practitioners and agencies, but also needs to foster the kind of ownership among participants that can hardly be achieved through centralised planning.

All this explains why the evaluation method known as Outcomes Harvesting has been gaining so much traction in these last years. Based on the principles of Outcomes Mapping, which it fully integrates and adapts to the purposes of evaluation, outcomes Harvesting is an “utilisation- focused, participatory tool that enables evaluators, grant makers, and programme managers to identify, formulate, verify, and make sense of outcomes they have influenced when relationships of cause-effect are not always known. Unlike most other evaluation methods, Outcome Harvesting does not measure progress towards predetermined outcomes or objectives, but rather collects evidence of what has been achieved, and works backward to determine whether and how the project or intervention contributed to the change.”

In Outcome Harvesting, outcomes are defined as observable changes in the behaviour i.e. policies, practices, relationships and actions of individuals, groups, organisations or institutions that the project influenced.

To be considered sufficiently credible to be used in this evaluation, each outcome has to meet the required quality standards of Outcome Harvesting, which means that it has to be formulated as an ‘outcome statement’ comprising three key elements: a description of the outcome itself, its significance to the dialogue process and the contribution made by the different stakeholders involved.

Besides its ability to capture outcomes that had not been established in advance, what makes this method even more interesting for INSPIRED is its participatory nature. The “harvest” engages the key stakeholders of the dialogue through different workshops and makes them stop and think of what they have collectively achieved. Such a demarche is not only the most adequate way to appraise the extent to which trust has been built among the participants in the process, but also a way of consolidating it by means of making them aware of what they have collectively achieved.

Over the course of an INSPIRED process, the Dialogue Host organises a series of Outcome Harvesting workshops - some internal and some with the involvement of all stakeholders, for the reasons explained above. Such a use of Outcome Harvesting includes a monitoring function and can give important insight as to how a process is unfolding, where successes have already been realised and where further work is required. It also allows the Dialogue Host to identify important entry points for further action that would make a particular outcome sustainable. For example, if one of the identified outcomes is the fact that a government office has taken on board the evidence produced by a civic actor, the Dialogue Host will realise that there is potential in facilitating a more structured exchange of information and analysis between these two actors. After having been collected over the course of the process, the full set of outcomes prepares the final evaluation of the process. At this stage outcomes also undergo a substantiation stage that consists of making the information public and verifying it with independent third parties, a task that is carried independently by the evaluators.

Outcome Mapping, from which Outcome Harvesting drew inspiration originally, has been increasingly integrated into INSPIRED processes - existing in parallel to the Outcome Harvesting workshops explained above. Here the purpose is to develop early on an overview of the expectations for involved stakeholders groups in the context of the policy dialogue process. Outcome Mapping and Outcome Harvesting: common concepts, differences and uses, available on the Outcome Harvesting website.

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