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The false correctness of the politically correct
It was only the fourth month of the project schedule, and we received an e-mail from Brussels that we were going to be submitted to a result-based evaluation. A consultant from the EU Commission would have come to us to find out if we had achieved the results that we were expected to achieve. In the fourth month from the beginning of the project? A result based evaluation? It probably should be done four month after the project is over ….
I welcomed the expert and I raised by questions about the strangely early date for a result based evaluation. He answered to me politely saying that in fact it was early, but he could see, from how we started, what were the ‘chances” that the project will achieve the expected results. That, I thought, is an ex=ante evaluation, not a result based. …. Anyway, it is written that we project managers ourselves were going to be the main beneficiaries of the evaluation report (that translated in the normal language was meaning that they are going to give us some general advices) I thought that we can in fact only benefit from it.
Originally the expert was supposed to visit all the five countries where we had partners at work. But then they accepted my suggestion that he could meet us all at the Round table in Tuscany.
He was a kind and polite Greek professor. He stayed with us all the 3 days of the Round table. Time to time he was taking one of the partners separate and interview them. How is the project going? Is your role in the project fitting your competences and expectations?
Luckily we had done already done the WIKI which was already at a quite advanced state. It was not considered yet as an external product: it was used as an internal communication tool. But there was already the advanced structure of how the things will become and information was piling up in a way that could already be used.
The problem was however with the “problem making” partners. They were complaining that the work was too difficult and the financial resources too limited, etcetera. They were trying to leverage the evaluation consultant on their side and have it as a sort of advocate for sustaining their side on the negotiation table. That was not pleasant, in fact turned me much more disaffection to these partners. Probably many of them did not also have much experience of how these projects work, and that you are never allowed to ask for an increase of funds. You can somehow, for a limited amount, shift from expense chapters. But you cannot ask for additional funds.
Since as the project manager I was supposed to be the main beneficiary of the evaluation exercise, and since his work was supposed to give me the right advise to face the emerging challenges, I frankly spoke to him about the fact that I sometimes found myself at a cross road where I had to choose between keeping on board a partner that was working without the expected quality (and then I should have accepted a decrease in the quality of the outputs) or dismiss some partner and assign those tasks to the better performing partners (and in such a case alternate the project partnership structure). I told him that I was going for the second option, also because the partners that were not performing well were 2 Bulgarian and 2 Italian NGOS; but since we had in any case another two Bulgarian NGOs and Armadilla itself was an Italian NGO we could do well also without them. What was his idea about it?
Here is where I have seen him in trouble. He told me “you are right! But ….” And then he tried to explain to me that in the EuropeAid standard management language one can never say “I am going to dismiss this partner because it is not working well”. One should always say that one is trying to keep all on board, supporting those who have lower capabilities, but without leaving anyone behind. If then really they do not catch up … then … you let them go. But you should never be seen as the one who is discharging them.
That sounded to me too hypocritical. I was quite disappointed. I thought I could have had a more authentic management partnership with Brussels offices. I thought I could have them allied in trying to achieve the project objectives with high quality results. Instead it appeared that in Brussels they are more concerned with the form than with the content; with the procedures than with the result. Even a “result-based” monitoring and evaluation exercise was just teaching me how to comply with formal procedures, without focusing too much on the results (but do not say that!).
This impression got confirmed when I, after 3 months, visited Brussels. It was the evaluator suggestion that I go to EuropeAid headquarter and meet on person the officer in charge of supervising our project. A nice elegant smart lady. Who liked the project and had a supportive attitude. Still in an apologetic mode she was saying that I must never compromise with the standard procedures which was implying that I must sometime be ready to compromise with the final results, if needed). They morally support me in getting out the best quality. But formally they have mainly to monitor me if I am following the standard procedures. They are experts of the procedures, not of the quality of the outputs; and they are mainly asked to supervise what they know best.
I seemed to me something like “you have to use a politically correct language, but it is not so important if that does not correspond faithfully to reality. Only later I started appreciating the necessity of this approach, since the standardization of language finally also helps in streamlining actions to policies. But at that time, as an author who needed to built a media product capable of touching the hearth and the mind of viewers, this seemed to me as really the wrong approach. Then I started actually to have two different project schedules. The “formal one” that I had to report to EU supervisors, where the only important issue was to conform to contract and procedures. And justify anything in that light. And the substantial one, where the only important thing was the quality of the outputs, even if they were obtained in a manner which could not be directly reported.
My real loyalty however was for the second schedule. I was ready to receive even a good deal of criticism from official quarters. But I wanted a good product. But since the money was coming from the official quarter, I had to comply with those requirements at least to the minimum required to keep the flow of cash. Then I would have focused on quality.
The whole adventure was going to last longer than expected. And could go wrong. I needed to be careful.
I was not very diplomatic with my problem making partners. But I really made an effort to keep them on board. I organized a special workshop for them. I spent time to correct the quality of their outputs. But I did told them that if they were not able to keep the pace it was better for them to leave, because I would have not paid them for sub-standard quality work. Marco supported me in that. They complained to the EU offices of bad treatment. But they did not even receive an acknowledgement answer from them. Even if EU formally declared the vital importance of the partnership, they finally want to have written correspondence only with the leader. And that makes managerial sense. Even if it goes borderline with the politically ideal management style.
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