In the Ramones documentary, End of The Century, there’s an interview with Johnny about working with producer Phil Spector.
Talking about recording the opening chord to ‘Rock’n’Roll High School’ he says, about Spector, “he spent 12 hours listening to it over and over again … [in the end] the chord came out sounding ok, but 12 hours’ worth ain’t really worth it”.
I felt a bit the same not so long ago when – as part of some advocacy evaluation work I was doing for an international NGO – I read through their reporting documents.
Just taking one year’s reporting – quarterly and annual reports – it added up to 286,000 words by my count.
There were several countries involved and it was a good campaign, with some good results. But not so great to churn out the equivalent of War and Peace every couple of years.
I was involved in a piece of research a couple of years back looking at how international NGOs organise their MEL [‘monitoring, evaluation and learning’] functions in advocacy, and one dynamic we identified is that whilst most of the talk is about learning, the set up is actually typically oriented to meeting accountability demands.
Accountability is important. But ideally it would be thought of as multi-directional (to partners and communities and other supporters as well as senior managers and donors).
Instead, reporting ends up being about upward accountability. It’s water flowing uphill. A one-way flood of information – from local level to country offices, to the head office, to the donor.
And evidence – as explored in this recent report by Jenny Ross for example – supports common sense that an upward, formalised reporting system is really not likely to be the best way to share and make sense of what’s actually happening.
In the same Ramones interview, Dee Dee says about Phil Spector, “He tried to be friends but then he had guns …”
This reminds me that whilst the people who devise these kinds of systems are trying to be helpful, they’re turning up with the wrong gear.
Reporting should be a tool to facilitate information flows in ways that promote transparency and effectiveness.
But the risk – and often the reality – is that nobody gets anything like what they need or want from this kind of reporting system.
At country level, it’s an obstacle course. It’s just mud to wade through and hoops to jump through.
For staff in head offices, it’s a jigsaw with most of the pieces missing. They’re trying to make sense of what is going on but getting at best a partial picture.
For funders, it’s Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer. A massively overblown construction that gives only the illusion of functionality.
And in the same way that one of those lemon squeezers you can get for £2.50 does the job just fine, I can’t help thinking that simpler, less constructed, less formalised reporting approaches – talking to people for example – would work best for all involved.