The Indicator You Desire

Updated: Jun 3

In the previous blog article, we saw an ad from a lonely output on the Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) dating forum. The output was in search of an indicator to partner with for the life of the programme. The response from potential indicators was overwhelming!

To help with the selection of the ideal indicator, all the stakeholders (such as the programme staff, donors and beneficiaries), discussed the potential indicators. This is a crucial step that should not be missed when selecting indicators.After reviewing the responses to the ad, the indicators were categorised according their traits. There were the:

1. Quantitative Indicators - “All about the numbers, baby!”

These indicators measure change in numerical values over time. Normally, the more substantive and quantitative the indicator, the stronger it is.

2. Qualitative indicators – “Sensitive and 'soft' type, quality over quantity

Qualitative indicators measure changes which are not easily measured through numerical values such as process-related improvements and improved quality of services, policies or capacity. Qualitative indicators usually need additional criteria. For example, if an intended result is to see greater civil society participation in local development, and the indicator is the quality of local public consultations, then partners must agree beforehand on the criteria for determining a quality process. Once agreed, they can be used in a simple monitoring checklist.

Check to see if the change in question relates to some sort of opinion, belief, or way of thinking. If not, it is most likely a quantitative indicator. If it describes the implementation of an activity or a one-off event, it is almost certainly a quantitative indicator.

3. Proxy indicators – "I am as close as you will ever get to the real thing..."

Proxy or Indirect indicators measure changes not directly related, yet closely associated with, the issue under consideration. For example, an increase in the number of political parties and voter turn-out might serve as proxy measures of improved governance.

4. Binary Indicators - “The ‘Yes’ (or No) Man

Binary indicators or “yes-no” indicators, are more common at the output level, and are simple measures of change. For example, an output might be: “Draft curriculum developed”, and the indicator is “Yes” or “No”. These Yes-No indicators do not require baselines or targets.

5. Composite indicators – “Mr. Frankenstein, not freaky, just made of many components

Composite indicators, compared with simple indicators, are complex measures capturing two or more distinct variables. The table below shows an example of a composite indicator containing three distinct variables (number of people exposed to urban pollution, number of people exposed to industrial pollution and number of people exposed to agrochemical pollution). To be meaningful, all three of these variables must be reflected in baseline and target values, and the implementing agency/programme staff must be capable of systematically monitoring and reported back on them. If this is not the case, a different indicator should be chosen.

5. Process Indicators – “Mr. Diversity

These process indicators are useful for a human rights based approach which emphasizes the quality of the participation process, inclusivity with a respect for the principle of equality, non-discrimination and gender sensitivity in identifying and delivering the results.

Editor’s Note:

Indicators are often a mix of the types described above. The following table shows different possible indicators for a typical outcome.

This table can be used for any result. The three vertical columns show whether the indicator describes the ends (substantive), the means (process), or is a proxy for the result.

Each of these columns is further sub-divided according to whether the indicator is quantitative, qualitative, or a combination of the two. This analysis can help make sense of the options one has in the selection of indicators. It is better to be in the upper left of the table than in the lower right. Once again, the more substantive and quantitative the indicator, the stronger it is.

In a rights-based approach, the process is equally important as the result. The quality of the process determines whether the results achieved are sustainable and will not harm other peoples’ rights. Therefore a monitoring and evaluation system should include both substantive and process indicators. In the above example, the process-qualitative indicator is important for knowing whether economic reforms are perceived by the poor as being appropriate to their needs.

Additionally, bear in mind that there are other types of indicators not covered in this article. I go in greater detail in my workshops.

Hope the article was helpful in increasing your knowledge of indicators. You can do the quiz to see how well you grasped the above concepts.

Additional Resources

“Learning for Peace: Search for Common Ground Manual”, UNICEF, 2013


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