Improving results-based management for capacity-building

Peter Morgan

This article looks at the intersection of two trends that are important for better development practice. One is the increasing adoption of results-based management (RBM) to demonstrate and improve the performance of projects and programmes. The other shift is towards interventions that enhance the capacity of development organizations.[1] Consequently, an important question, especially for donors and practitioners, is: ‘How can RBM be effectively applied to capacity-building, particularly at the level of formal organizations?’

Applying RBM to capacity-building initiatives has real potential. The discipline of thinking through expected results and ways of assessing them can help participants reach a clearer understanding about the capacities that they need. RBM can support personal and organizational learning. It can encourage a transition to a more information-based style of decision-making. It can help overcome scepticism about the value of field programmes. And it can help make the point that performance matters.

However, these potential contributions are seldom realized, for two reasons. First, many of the constraints development organizations face – rapid staff turnover, politicization, centralized authority, unease about transparency, critical shortages of operating funds – do not fit well with effective RBM. Second, many approaches to RBM for capacity-building have been ill conceived: either too donor-driven or unfocused to be relevant or else too mechanical and extractive to be useful. Alongside the promised benefits has come a good deal of wasted effort and report decoration. RBM needs to incorporate some of the shifts towards greater participation, process orientation, value pluralism and flexibility that have reshaped our approaches to evaluation. So how can we do better in practice? The following principles may help.

See capacity-building as an end rather than a means

Despite recent enthusiasm for capacity-building as the missing link in development, many in the aid system still regard it with ambivalence. For much of the modern era of development cooperation, capacity issues have attracted little serious attention beyond a component that had to be included to help achieve project or programme objectives. Even today, donors employ too few staff with professional training in organizational and institutional change. Incentives for donor staff remain oriented towards design, approval and policy work. Further, demonstrating the results or the ‘deliverables’ of capacity-building, particularly in the short term, remains problematic. Simply put, the impetus behind capacity issues is usually weak. Most participants still do not treat capacity-building as a substantive end rather than a functional means. Seeing it as an end in itself makes a key difference.

Useful questions on this point include: In whose interest is it to build capacity? What can be done during both design and implementation to give it the focus it needs? What kind of understanding exists among participants about the importance of capacity-building? What are the incentives and disincentives to making it a priority? Do participants have the patient, tenacious mindset that is needed?  
Come to an understanding on the rules of the game

A shared understanding among the various actors about the rules of the game is important for effective RBM. Rules here refer to decision-making, use of information, possible rewards and sanctions, relationships, transparency, trust and so on. Too much time is spent on crafting elaborate techniques and too little on creating this understanding. RBM for capacity-building needs to be treated for what it usually is: namely a human exercise in organizational and institutional learning and change, often in conflicted and unstable environments. Informal rules matter.

Questions worth asking might include the following: Do all participants have a common understanding of terms such as capacity and sustainability? Who decides what to assess? What capacity issues are off limits? Who sets the indicators? Who pays the costs of RBM? Who gets access to the information and for what purpose? Are funders willing to see their own judgements as just part of the agenda? Can RBM for capacity-building be designed to have an empowering effect?   

Rebalance the purposes of RBM for capacity-building

We need to be clearer about the basic purposes of RBM for capacity-building:

  • to gauge outcomes and impact in terms of capacity;
  • to improve capacity-building programmes at the field level;
  • to contribute to learning and knowledge creation about capacity issues.

Funder ownership of and control over RBM systems has focused attention on the first of these. Given the need to reassure domestic constituencies during a period of scepticism and falling aid allocations, demonstrating accountability has often monopolized the attention of participants. Activities that can produce good numbers in the short term have been valued over process issues that seem less tangible and quantifiable, but which are critical to capacity-building. RBM for capacity-building needs to focus more on the other two purposes. To be useful for management improvement for field practitioners, it must be designed to meet specific management uses for specific people. To support learning, it must be directed to meet a specific learning agenda.

From the outset, programme design should focus on questions such as: Who are the primary intended users? How can RBM for capacity-building be made useful for them? Are we just reaching conclusions or are we helping participants make decisions? Will RBM serve to improve communication, dialogue and learning? How can we go about institutionalizing RBM for participant benefit? 

Use RBM to craft strategies for capacity-building

RBM has tended to focus on setting capacity-building targets and objectives – the ‘what’ question. But the attendant analysis has usually been surprisingly vague about the underlying theory of action or the strategies for performance and organizational change – the ‘how’ and ‘why’ issues – that were meant to achieve these objectives. Participants, especially those from outside a country, have been unclear about the causes (as opposed to the symptoms) of existing capacity gaps. As a result, many approaches to RBM for capacity-building have come apart at the level of strategy and values. Participants have agreed on objectives but differed on points of intervention, time scales, approaches to organizational design, and many other things. We need to base our RBM efforts on more coherent strategies for both organizational change and performance. 

Participants need to spend more time on issues such as: What is the capacity-building strategy at work now? Why has that strategy for change been chosen? By whom and why? Is the measurement system derived from this strategy? How can we tell if the strategy is appropriate or not?

Focus on more than just outcomes 

We are still looking for the right balance in the process versus outcomes debate. Current RBM thinking urges a focus on outcomes and impact to get away from past preoccupations with inputs and activities. However, RBM approaches that focus only on capacity outcomes tend to fixate on the ‘what’ and to play down the ‘how’. Tracking only longer-term outcomes cannot provide participants with the quick feedback they need to rethink their behaviour, while focusing too much on process can lead to judgements that are misleading or premature. Adopting a more balanced approach that makes the linkages between capacity-building process, outcomes and longer-term impacts is crucial.

The challenge here is twofold: to improve our ability to analyse and measure processes for change in a way that is relevant and credible and to pull issues to do with process, outcomes and impact together to give participants and stakeholders a clear and coherent sense of systems change. 

Questions here include: What type of change has occurred, and why? What is the level of change? Change for whom? To what degree is the programme realizing its potential? What else happened? Can we link better performance to improved capacity? Are we helping to build the capacity to build capacity?

Go beyond a focus on measurement and indicators

Most measurement frameworks for capacity-building have been too narrow and mechanistic to capture trends over time in complex issues such as organizational change. A creative blend of quantitative and qualitative measures appears to be better suited for RBM for capacity-building. Some capacity-building programmes are using RBM on a ‘no indicator’ basis in an effort to open up the assessment process to the unexpected and the unintended, which often generate the real benefits. Others are experimenting with capacity-building ‘stories’ and case studies as sources of insight – better to have rough estimates of things that matter than precise indications of things that participants care little about. 

Relevant questions include: How can we generate information that is relevant, useful and credible? Are we getting meaning and interpretation or just measurement and prediction? Are we using indicators that have real resonance for people? And do they fit with the strategic intent of the programme? To what degree is the programme reward structure tied to RBM? 

The way forward

This emerging approach to RBM for capacity-building is more suited to the nuanced demands of inducing and assessing long-term change and innovation. It is less oriented towards control and prediction and more towards delegation, learning and experimentation, and programme improvement. There is less emphasis on technique and more on relevance and credibility. The ownership and management of RBM are extended beyond donors to a much wider range of participants. In sum, RBM for capacity-building is making the transition from a measurement and reporting technique for donor accountability, to become a broader approach to the strategic management of development programmes. The challenge now lies in implementation and in demonstrating that RBM can play this role.    

Capacity is used here to mean the ability to perform or help create developmental value over time at a variety of levels: individual, organization, network, system or sector and even the nation.  Capacity-building is a dedicated process of interventions that help induce the capacity required to perform well at different levels.

Peter Morgan is a consultant living in Washington DC. He consults on capacity-building programmes around the world. He can be contacted by email at

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