man with unhappy mask
But not in a good way.

My wife started a new job as a social worker two years ago. As a long-standing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) consultant, I was rather jealous. Like many of my colleagues, I get tired of arms-length bureaucracy, managing data about projects in another continent. The idea of working directly with service users, being able to communicate and support them, was rather appealing.

I’ve learned since then, however, that M&E and social work have a lot in common. Both professions frequently fail for a similar reason. Social work in the UK can be a brutal profession, both for the ‘clients’ subjected to it and the employees required to practice it. M&E is a more varied discipline, but frequently ineffectual. There are of course many underlying reasons, but one important reason is shared. M&E and social work are both trying to fulfil two contradictory goals: supporting and policing.

Social workers talk a lot about supporting their clients. Glowing brochures explain how you will “empower the most disadvantaged in society to bring about positive change”, and “make a real difference in their lives”. Similarly, M&E practitioners will smugly explain that their work provides “real-time feedback to program staff to facilitate a continuous development loop”. Both professions view their work as fundamentally supportive; they exist to provide services or information that will help the people they work with.

Simultaneously, however, both social work and M&E are tools of oversight and control. If there are sufficient grounds for suspicion, a social worker can turn up at your house uninvited and monitor your parenting skills. If they are not satisfied with what they see, they have the power to start a process that could lead to your children being removed. There is nothing empowering about that.

The same dynamic applies in M&E. Jovial M&E manager often reassure their team with the cliché that “we are not the police”. That’s often untrue. Where M&E is taken seriously, a determined M&E manager has the authority to investigate, review, and close projects. The implementer may think that they are running a great project, but the M&E manager can condemn it as ‘illogical’, ‘missing assumptions’, and ‘failing’.

How can the two be reconciled? In social work, as far as I can tell, they are not. Practitioners are expected to play two fundamentally contradictory roles, setting them up for conflict with their clients (who are naturally resentful and scared) and the bureaucracy (which prioritises policing).

In M&E, we are lucky to have a bit more flexibility. In some cases, it is possible for different groups to play the different roles – such as when you get a learning-focused monitoring system, and an accountability-focused evaluation system. Ultimately, each organisation needs to think about which function is most important for them, and tailor their M&E system accordingly. Mouthing platitudes about facilitating adaptive management, while exerting a policing role in programme implementation, is never going to end well.