Beyond a burden: what value does verification offer?
Police officers, auditors, teachers marking homework and giving out detentions – just some of the unfavourable analogies we have heard applied to the role of the independent verification team in the WASH Results Programme. In this blog, Catherine Fisher highlights the positive roles missing from these comparisons.
Our job is to verify that the achievements reported by Suppliers delivering the programme are accurate and reliable in order that DFID can make payment. It’s easy to see why the relationship between Verifier and Supplier can be an uncomfortable one, but in this post we look at the value of verification and what, if any, benefits it brings to Suppliers.
Why does the WASH Results Programme have a verification team?
Payment by Results (PbR) guru, Russell Webster, concluded from his review of PbR literature :
“When commissioners devise a contract where payment is mainly contingent on providers meeting outcome measures, they need to be confident in the data relating to whether these measures are achieved. There are two main issues:
- Is the provider working with the right people (i.e. not cherry picking those who will achieve the specified outcomes most easily)?
- Are the data reliable?”
Let’s take each of these in turn.
All the Suppliers in the WASH Results Programme are international NGOs who have continued to pursue their commitment to values such as equity and inclusiveness even if it has not been incentivised by the PbR mechanism. A central theme in our peer learning workshops has been the ongoing puzzle of how to place value (both in commercial/financial and Value for Money terms) on intangible aspirations and benefits, such as reaching the most vulnerable and investing in the processes and social capital that underpin effective programming. Suppliers and the Verification Team have been exploring how PbR can enable alignment with national systems and promote downward, as well as upward accountability.
There has been no evidence of gaming in the WASH Results Programme. That is not to say that it might never be an issue for other PbR contracts and the higher the risk of gaming, the greater emphasis there needs to be on verification. So if verification has not identified any gaming, what value has it brought?
Are the data reliable?
Because the WASH Results Programme relies largely on Supplier’s own monitoring data, the benefits of verification stem from the question of whether Suppliers’ data about their achievements are reliable. This has been a matter of great debate.
We have found that in some cases it is right not to rely unquestioningly on data that comes from Suppliers’ monitoring systems – those systems are not always as robust as Suppliers themselves thought. Verification has identified several situations where Suppliers could have gone on to inadvertently over-report results, which would have led to DFID paying for results that had not been achieved. Verification ensured DFID only paid for genuine results and helped Suppliers improve their monitoring. We explore the value to Suppliers of improved monitoring, later.
One of our Country Verifiers (members of the Verification Team based where the implementation is taking place) recently observed: “From my experience, the WASH Results programme is quite different from the traditional way of doing implementation – having someone who is independent, who checks the Suppliers’ results before they are paid for, makes it quite a good tool to hold Suppliers to account.”
So far, the obvious value that verification in the WASH Results Programme has brought to DFID is confidence in results, through third party information about those results, and a reduced risk of paying for results that were not achieved. But there are more, less apparent, benefits and we describe towards the end of this post.
Can verification bring value to Suppliers?
Having explored the value of verification to the donor, we now turn to the value for Suppliers.
The same Country Verifier commented that while he felt some Suppliers were initially scared that the verifier was there to spot their mistakes, “I think with time they realise that the role of independent verification is just to check that what they’re reporting is what the reality is when the verifier goes out to sites where they’ve been working. You’re only checking.”
Although Suppliers often view verification as a “burden”, our team identified a set of potential returns for the Suppliers on the effort and investment they put into participating in the process (effects, we suspect, that donors would appreciate). We acknowledge that it can be hard to unpick the value of verification from the value of investing in better monitoring per se, but without overstating our role, we feel we have contributed to:
- Identifying areas for improvement – verification has revealed flaws in a system thought by the Supplier to be strong and introduced tests that were not previously used. In one example, verification revealed problems with third party enumerators’ work and this prompted greater scrutiny of their data by the Supplier and changes to training processes.
- Strengthening Quality Assurance – we have seen how the expectation of verifiers checking data can prompt Suppliers to improve their own Quality Assurance (QA) processes, for example, carrying out internal checks prior to submitting data for verification and introducing QA protocols.
- Increasing the value of data – the process of verification counters the commonly-held belief that “no-one looks at this data anyway”, which, unchecked, can reduce the effort put into data collection and the usability of the data systems.
- Reducing risk of failure (and withholding of payment) – the requirement to have more and better data can pre-empt some problems. For example, knowing that they would need to demonstrate to verifiers that they had met their water systems targets, prompted one Supplier to check in advance if the declared yield of sources would be enough to reach the population they were planning to reach.
- Forcing deeper reflection – linking PbR to the achievement of WASH outcomes has forced Suppliers to think about WASH outcomes and how they can be measured and be clearer on definitions to a greater degree than in other, non-PbR, programmes. Verification has by no means driven that process but has contributed to it.
We acknowledge that these may not always have felt like benefits to the Suppliers! In particular, some Suppliers have pointed out the trade-off between data collection and learning, and suggested that the burden of verification has stifled innovation and inhibited adaptive programming. Others, however claim the opposite, which implies there may be other factors at play.
In spite of concerns, there is broad consensus that the PbR modality, of which verification is a part, has driven higher investment in and attention to programme M&E systems. PbR requires Suppliers to be clear about what they are trying to achieve, to collect good quality data to monitor their progress and to use that data to report on their progress regularly. Verification has helped to build confidence in the strength of systems and data on which those processes are based. There is an emerging sense that effective use of reliable M&E data by Suppliers has enabled rapid course correction and so contributed to high achievements across the WASH Results Programme.
And if that is not enough, we think there are benefits for other stakeholders in countries in which WASH Results is operating. We have seen some benefits from capacity spillover– skills and knowledge acquired through working in or observing the data collection, analysis and verification in the WASH Results Programme are available to other programmes e.g. among enumerators, Country Verifiers, programme staff, even Government agencies. Again, this is by no means all attributable to verification but verification has contributed.
Value and the limits of verification
It can be hard to unpick the benefits of verification from benefits that stem from the greater emphasis on data collection inherent to PbR. In some contexts PbR is being used without third party verification. But, in contexts where reassurance is needed about the reliability of the data on outputs and outcomes, we believe verification offers value to the donor, to the Suppliers and, potentially to others in the country in which the programme is operating.
While we have argued for the benefits of verification, there are weaknesses in PbR that verification cannot solve. Verifiers, like police officers, don’t make the rules, they just enforce them. They verify results that have been agreed between the donor and the supplier. As one of our team observed recently “Payment by Results makes sure you do what you said you would. It doesn’t make you do the right thing….”
However, if verification helps drive a “race to the top” in terms of quality of monitoring systems, the sector will begin to have better data on which to base decisions. Better data about what kinds of programmes produce what kinds of outcomes in which contexts could help donors to fund, and programmers to implement, more of the “the right thing”. And the police officers will feel their job has been worthwhile.
Catherine Fisher, Learning Advisor, Monitoring and Verification Team for the WASH Results Programme. This post draws on a reflection process involving members of the Monitoring and Verification team for the WASH Results Programme (Alison Barrett, Amy Weaving, Andy Robinson, Ben Harris, Cheryl Brown, Don Brown, Joe Gomme and Kathi Welle).
Want to learn more about the experience of the WASH Results Programme? Join us in Stockholm during World Water Week for ‘The Rewards and Realities of Payment by Results in WASH’
This blog was originally published on the Learning about Payment by Results in Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) website.#VERIFICATION #WASH