Project Management Cycle in Community Development

by Edward Kingston Jombla
(Freetown, Sierra Leone )

Visitor Question: How should local communities manage projects using a results based approach?

Editors Reply: For the benefit of other visitors, we need to define those terms. The project management cycle, or "project cycle management" as we have commonly heard it used, simply refers to how many funding organizations, international non-governmental organizations, management experts, and nonprofit leaders describe the idea that a project or program follows a definite cycle from the project's conception through implementation of some type of intervention to fix a defined problem, and then onward.

A results based approach simply refers to an approach to creating, administering, and evaluating a program or project based in part on long-term results, rather than observing and measuring solely short-term outputs of a program. It sounds like common sense, and it is, but surprisingly often in the past, the longer-term picture was ignored in favor of counting units of service delivered.

To create a fuller picture of results-based management, we should say that practitioners of this theory often separate "results" into three parts: outputs, outcomes, and impacts. Outputs are short-term, outcomes are medium-term, and impacts are long-term.

Groups that use results-based management (often shortened to RBM) describe their philosophy as a structured approach. Sometimes it is divided into assessment, thinking, planning, doing, and review. The purposes are to emphasize long-term impacts and to provide tools for project management and evaluation.

In the U.S. many funders require the development of what they call a "logic model," which uses this same structured approach. Many times non-profit organizations seeking grants must produce a visual aid called the logic model, and often the model must address resources and inputs, activities, and then outputs, outcomes, and impact.

To give the history of results-based approaches extremely briefly, in the 1980s a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that many of their development projects actually performed poorly when measured on the basis of long-term benefits. This was true regardless of whether targets for short-term outputs were met. OECD attributed this poor performance to lack of project relevance to the target population (and we here at this website would say this happened because of poor engagement of the beneficiaries in project design), as well as to underestimated risks, lack of long-term thinking during project planning, and lack of attention to "lessons learned" from previous programs.

So results-based approaches were meant to correct these deficiencies.

You ask how local communities can adopt results-based approaches to community development. Truthfully a lot of pre-project planning is required, and often local communities are reacting to crisis situations or to political pressures rather than engaging in a long, expensive process of program design. But to the extent possible, a local community should:

1. Define in advance what success in the long-term would look like. As examples, maybe your goal is for every adult to be able to read, everyone who wants a job to have one, or every child to have enough to eat.
2. Determine how you can measure whether that result has been achieved, and what indicators of success you will use. Decide in advance, before egos are involved, what you will measure and at what intervals. Make sure you can afford the time and money it will take to perform these measurements.
3. Set up milestones at pre-determined intervals as the project is being implemented, and then decide how you will know if those milestones are being met or exceeded.
4. Weight long-term success more heavily than short-term production of outputs, such as number of people served, amount of food distributed, number of housing units renovated, or number of new students enrolled.

But we think that the most important idea for local communities to focus on is learning from the past. This can be done whether or not a local community has enough resources to perform a multitude of measurements, and it can be done even in the aftermath of a severe crisis. If a community refuses to learn from past successes and mistakes, all of the fancy charts, program evaluations, and reports in the world will not make a difference. Every administrator should make a commitment to continuous learning. Every board of directors or other governing body must give the professional staff permission to fail or fall short of goals, so that honest outputs and outcomes will be reported and used as learning tools.

A second important idea is not receiving enough attention. Understand and respect the fact that program implementation needs to change course often as projects move forward. Even at the local community level, when a program administrator notices that something is not working, it is important to try something different.

Too often the funders and NGOs who are promoting various results-based approaches do not provide enough training on the fact that diagrams of project cycle management are intended as helpful tools, and not as commitments to follow through on a particular course of action even if it does not appear to work. When the tool assumes too much importance, it can obscure the good work it is intended to promote.

So yes, we think administrators in local communities should learn about structured results-based approaches, but by all means, they also must be given the latitude to step back and re-think program design as soon as it becomes evident that results are not as anticipated. That's true whether the "results" are short-term outputs, medium-term outcomes, or long-term impacts.

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