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The false correctness of the politically correct
It was only the fourth month since we started implementing the project and we received an e-mail from Brussels that we were going to be subject of a result-based evaluation mission. A consultant from the EU Commission would have visited 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? Isn't too early?
I welcomed the expert but indicated my perplexity about the early date for a result based evaluation. He answered to me politely saying that in fact it was early, but he could see, from the way we started it, what were the ‘chances” of the project to achieve the expected results. That, I thought, is an ex-ante evaluation, not a result based! Anyway, the evaluators wrote to us that we, project managers, were going to be the main beneficiaries of the evaluation report. That, translated in the ordinary language, meant that they were just going to give us some general advices. In fact we can benefit form it, if for nothing else at least for understanding how EC evaluation works. .
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 University 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 produced the WIKI, which was already in a quite advanced state. It was not yet developed ad a platform for external communication. But there was already the advanced structure and it was possible to infer how the information was going to be collected and shared through it.
But we had a major problem 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 requests of less work and more money. That was not elegant! Probably some of the partners did not know that project financed are tight to the approved budget and you cannot ask for additional funds because of unforeseen difficulties on the track. You can somehow, for a limited amount, shift expenses from chapters to chapters. But you cannot ask for additional funds.
As the project manager I was supposed to be the main beneficiary of the evaluation exercise, and I tried to use this position to ask the evaluator for advise on how to face the emerging challenges with the "problem making" partners. I frankly spoke to him about the fact that I was founding myself at a cross road where I had to choose between keeping on board unenthusiastic partner (but 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 (but in such a case I had to modify the agreed partnership structure). I told him that I was going for the second option. What was his take on it?
In front of my frankness I sow 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 everybody 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 really 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 as allies in the challenge of achieving 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 derail with the generally accepted 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 conventional procedures and use only the politically correct terminology. It is easier to be "objective" while looking at the way you implement the procedures; it is much more "subjective" when you look at the quality of the outputs, especially when these are communication products. Since the EC employees are basically asked to be "objective" they have to basically limit their purview to procedures. Then you are left alone in front of your consciousness and your partners to do something that besides being "politically correct" is also politically relevant.
So I was told 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 much later I started appreciating the necessity of this approach, since the standardization of language finally also helps in streamlining development actions into national policies. But at that time, as an author who needed to make a media product capable of reaching the hearth of the public, this EU bureaucratic approach sounded as the gateway to rhetoric and ineffective communication.
In order to survive in the midst of EU supervisions and still make a vital communication I had to adopt a two level project schedule. one was the “formal" schedule, which I had to narrate to EU supervisors, was the one that was proving conformity to contractual procedures and standard political jargon. The other was the concrete schedule which was taking us towards meaningful outputs. To balance the two levels is not easy and often one has to prioritize one at the expenses of the other. My loyalty was for the quality of the outputs. I was ready to bear a good deal of criticism from official quarters, but I wanted a good product. The money was coming from the official quarters and I had to comply with the standard administrative procedures to keep the flow of cash. But then I would have focused on quality, not on procedures. Because of the two levels of project management the whole story was going to be more difficult and time consuming than I had expected. And could go wrong. I needed to be careful.
I was not at all diplomatic with my problem making partners. But I really made an effort to keep them on board. I organized a special workshop for them for helping them to face their challenges. 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 send the payments for sub-standard quality work. Marco supported me in that. They complained to the EU offices of bad treatment. But they found deaf ears from Brussels. 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.
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