12/09/2017

Eight tips to conduct a successful self-assessment


By Alix Wadeson
Alix Wadeson is an aid and development consultant with a decade of experience in the sector working for INGOs at HQ and in the field.

Last month’s World Humanitarian Day seemed to be a fitting moment to reflect on the work we did on the Core Humanitarian Standard for Quality and Accountability (CHS) with CARE International UK. A team of three hired to support CARE in undertaking its first ever CHS self-assessment, we were eager to engage as pioneers in helping the organisation to test out this new tool.

The CHS has several advantages over tools that are available on the accountability menu today, such as  the Sphere standards and the Quality COMPAS(Groupe URD). It is a multi-faceted, robust and fit-for-purpose tool that enables organisations to look at responses from a wide range of angles. When applied as intended, the self-assessment can produce relevant, practical insight and learning, highlighting clear areas of strength as well as areas for improvement. Another novelty, arguably long overdue, is the way the CHS self-assessment tools place the people and communities directly affected by crisis front and centre The CHS ups the ante by providing a more comprehensive way to measure and communicate the concepts of humanitarian quality and accountability, in practice. While humanitarian actors tend to (sincerely) preach about the importance of these concepts, going through CHS self-assessment demands a heightened level of rigour and precision. Its format does not have space for vagueness, inconsistency or ambiguous statements about practices –- specific and traceable evidence wins above all. And isn’t that the flavour du jour in today’s aid climate, for better or worse

Although we are a team of consultants, we brought with us a deep understanding of the organisation, having all worked for or with CARE international on many occasions. This existing relationship created a natural fit for an assignment in which the SELF is a vital ingredient to the meaningfulness of the process and utility of its results. Fostering openness of participants involved is absolutely key to the success of the self-assessment – openness to providing candid information and openness to internalising the results.

Unlike a routine external evaluation, our team does not view CHS self-assessment as a critical measuring stick with which organisations should be questioned and graded. This also means that the tool should be attentively studied, as its scoring framework (including 80 indicators across nine commitments) is admittedly complicated and long. We therefore took time to go through the CHS self-assessment tool and break it down. And while the guidance provided by CHS Alliance is detailed, those conducting CHS self-assessment must also invest in getting to know it and adapting it to their own organisational structure and the nuances within it. One size does not fit all. This in itself is a learning process that takes resources and the commitment of a wide group of stakeholders. It is not a side-task to be done by an overloaded MEAL staff’s ‘spare-30-minutes-on-lunchbreak’.

However, if taken seriously, the self-assessment offers a genuine safe space for reflection and discussion, allowing for both recognition of successes and shortcomings, and creating a set of clear aspirations for the future. Furthermore, the self-assessment process is meant to be repeated to track change and progress. If this happens consistently, it will become integrated into the fabric of the organisation with stronger ownership over time which in turn, allows for greater efficiency in the process.

Photo credit: Brian Sokol

As ALNAP Director John Mitchell poignantly stated in his recent ReliefWeb post, “We humanitarians are a self-critical bunch… this is a good thing as it shows we are open to changing and improving but... it can create a pervasive feeling of gloom and doom”. It’s important that the CHS doesn’t produce fuel for the latter category. It would be unfortunate for the self-assessment to garner a reputation that make staff wary or provokes defensiveness. Humanitarians have enough of that within their own haunted psyches. The sector is constantly facing questions and critiques about the utility of aid from the public and donors. Those who live and breathe aid in crisis know that both failures and triumphs exist at the heart of the most heartbreaking disasters. The CHS self-assessment allows organisations to reflect on both in the aftermath of crisis. Ideally, it will become a household tool that really engages people, brings staff together and fosters change for the better.

CARE International UK’s perspective:

For CARE, the CHS is both a big added value and a major challenge. Undertaking the assessment in an organisation which is actually a global Federation of many organisations is daunting. But the learning and insight we can, and did, gain from the assessment is significant. The self-assessment confirmed things we knew or suspected, but also highlighted both strengths and weaknesses we hadn’t appreciated. We now have an ambitious and important improvement plan to address the weaknesses, but we also have renewed confidence that we do a lot of things very well.

To use the CHS well it needs a not insignificant investment of organisational time and resources. If, as CARE, we are to make this investment, we need to be sure that we are going to learn things and be able to improve as a result. Together with the team we recruited we set out to do just that. Rather than worrying about complying, and about scores, we set out to use the CHS to gain insight into our work and how it affects the people we seek to help. I would strongly recommend that any other organisations engaging in CHS assessments do just that.

EIGHT TIPS TO CONDUCT A SUCCESSFUL SELF-ASSESSMENT

  • Commitment and buy-in: Ensuring that key senior staff take the time to explain the purpose and importance of the self-assessment, encourages staff to engage and give their valuable time to the exercise.

  • Time: Allocating enough time and resources for a meaningful process is critical. This depends on the organisation. For our three-person team, we worked 50 person-days plus the time of a highly engaged task manager over a few months. This was without the field work with communities, therefore about 20 extra days would be required to include that.

  • Resources: As above, a core team of internal staff should be available to truly commit the time (as part of their daily job duties, not on top of them). If this is not possible, hiring external support to design and guide the process is worth the investment.

  • Breadth and Representation: It is important to collect insight from all levels of the organisation to obtain a 360-degree perspective - partners and beneficiaries, deployed surge capacity staff, humanitarian response staff, HQ humanitarian staff and senior representatives.

  • Prioritisation: The amount of documentation and people to engage is significant. Therefore, reviewing and collecting the ‘right’ data is key. When conducting Key Informant Interviews (KIIs), select questions that are specific to that person. Not all the CHS commitments will be relevant to every person engaged in the self-assessment. We also learnt that it was helpful to avoid always using the exact CHS language. Eliminate jargon and simplify language as much as possible.

  • Planning in detail: Careful sequencing of the steps such document reviews, KIIs, surveys and field work is critical for ensuring a streamlined process. For instance, we tried to do the interviews towards the end of the process so that they could be informed by the document-based evidence we had collected and the staff survey results. Briefing interviewees and sharing questionnaires in advance, allows for more efficient use of everyone’s time. In addition, a detailed work plan and clear division of labour was very useful for our team.

  • Information management: Taking detailed notes on the evidence reviewed with reference to the different CHS indicators (Organisational Responsibilities, Key Actions and Performance Indicators) during the process is crucial. This enables cross reference of evidence later on and easier referencing for the final scoring.  A robust information management practice is also essential, for instance by numbering files, creating a good storage system, and using an Evidence Tracker Tool*.

  • Follow-up: Providing a detailed commentary report to accompany the CHS scoring annexes and improvement plan provides more richness and nuance to the scores. Furthermore, assigning a core team of staff to take forward the improvement plan, as CARE has done, is essential for momentum to grow and change to take place.*


Feel free to get in touch with us for more information about our learning from the CHS self-assessment process and more points of interest based on our experience!

Alix Wadeson is an aid and development consultant with a decade of experience in the sector working for INGOs at HQ and in the field. She has experience working in diverse roles across programmes in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, with a passion for programme management and strengthening organisational Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL). As a consultant, Alix has worked extensively on designing programmes, developing tools and guidelines for MEAL, and facilitating learning within complex organisations, in addition to humanitarian deployments. Alix holds an MPA from the University of York in the UK. She can be contacted at alixwadesonconsulting@gmail.com.

Bernardo Monzani is a monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) expert with over 12 years of experience working in the development sector, focusing on issues of governance, peacebuilding and youth education/empowerment. Bernardo worked for international NGOs at headquarters and in field offices, as well as UN peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Haiti. His areas of expertise include qualitative and quantitative research, MEL, and programme development. Bernardo holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC (USA). He can be contacted at bmonzani@gmail.com.

Clare Sayce is a freelance humanitarian consultant who has worked in the sector for over 15 years, including for several large INGOs and the Red Cross. She is experienced in emergency response and longer-term programme management in the field, as well as head-office coordination, fundraising and policy. Clare is passionate about aid effectiveness and, as such, has led many evaluations and other learning processes designed to improve accountability and impact. Most recently she supported the CARE Confederation in its first Core Humanitarian Standard self-assessment. Clare has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. She can be contacted at claremsayce@gmail.com.

Tom Newby is CARE International UK’s Head of Humanitarian, based in London. 


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