Effective monitoring requires proper planning and clear goals. “IMPROVE” is an acronym for each of the key steps in effective political process monitoring initiatives:

  • Identify your goals.
  • Mobilize your resources and your people.
  • Plan your activities and monitoring tools.
  • Record or gather data.
  • Outline what you’ve recorded.
  • Voice your findings and recommendations.
  • Evaluate how well you achieved your monitoring goals.

Some effective monitoring initiatives use human-centered design (HCD), a methodology to design user-friendly and effective digital products, services and campaigns. HCD can help you define your objectives, identify your target audience, and understand their needs and wants to design digital tools that solve real problems. An HCD process also starts with an analysis of the relevant ecosystem of actors and information. This approach is beneficial to understanding how your monitoring initiative can have the most impact in the communities and context you are working in, and how you can engage with your target audience throughout the design and implementation of the monitoring initiative. Through low-cost, do-it-yourself–style activities, NDI’s Co/Act toolkit18 can help you adopt this approach for your monitoring initiative.

Improve Steps

Identify the target political process, your goals and the stakeholders

In the first step, identify the target political process (government program, target institution or officials) that you want to monitor, including the gap or need in the process or something that could be improved. Ask questions about the current level of transparency, how responsive the institutions and officials are to citizens, and the level of access to the process, etc.

Also identify the goals you want to achieve through monitoring. Envision how the monitoring initiative can improve the political process and what civic participation in the process will look like. Identify the overarching questions that need to be answered during the initiative. It is recommended at this step to survey citizens and stakeholders to determine their interests, priorities, needs and expectations around the monitoring initiative.

You should also identify the stakeholders: those who would be most affected by the process, and those who would be interested to know more about the process or who may support you in your work. Because significant time is often needed to show results or improvements, it is important to establish a clear goal with objectives for the short term, midterm, and long term.

Tip: Perform a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis for monitoring the target political process. Through the analysis, explore your organization’s strengths and weaknesses in terms of human capacity, technical capacity and financial resources, as well as in terms of your organization’s relationships that could benefit or hinder the initiative. Identify the opportunities to engage strategically, as well as the potential risks or threats from this type of work or sectors of likely resistance. Explore what is already being done in the space and which efforts are complementary or competing.

Mobilize resources, funding, stakeholders, and your organization and community

The next step involves mobilizing resources, activists and the community to be part of your monitoring. It is important to think about how to engage people in your work and how to get a community’s support. At a minimum, you should inform the community in which you will work to start gaining their support and garnering their suggestions. Spending some time to mobilize your resources will mean that you may have to do some fundraising activities, and may require you to reorganize and reassign your organization’s team. Going through this step is helpful for setting the scope of your monitoring initiative and to ensure you are better prepared for the planning of the initiative.

Plan your monitoring approach and tools

In this step, develop an action plan, where you list goals, activities, monitoring tools, and the people who will run those activities and monitor using those tools. If data is collected on different dates and in different places, the monitoring approach should take these nuances into account to avoid inconsistencies in the data. Identifying ways to standardize data collection and to be transparent and intentional about how data is collected will increase the results’ credibility. This is also when you plan how you will monitor, manage the monitoring initiative, and protect the privacy and security of people and information throughout the monitoring process.

Tip: Start small. You can start by observing only a part of a process, or only one feature within the process. For example, you may start by observing how much transparency exists in the process. This can be done fairly easily and may give you a good understanding of how easy or challenging it will be to monitor the target institution. Perhaps start by observing and tracking the decisions and actions of only one department of a larger public institution, or with one township rather than a larger geographical area. Pilot initiatives are a practical way to start monitoring. In this way, you can build your monitoring capacities and get to the evaluation step more quickly, while requiring fewer expenses.

Another essential part of the planning step is organizing the team responsible for managing the project, gathering and analyzing the data, and communicating the monitoring work. Assign concrete responsibilities to the monitors who will use the tools to gather the required information and report that information.

In particular, it is a good idea to think about who will process and analyze the data and whether this should entail hiring an external data analysis expert or providing training for someone from your organization in data analysis and processes. While monitors should be closely involved in the analysis part, in terms of giving feedback, they are usually focused on observing and recording a very specific part of the process, and therefore will likely have the most insight in that area only rather than in the broader situation.

Record using monitoring tools

The record step, the longest one in the monitoring initiative, is data collection, where you observe and gather the data you need through your monitoring tools. The observation methodologies and tools you use to do this will be covered more in later sections on “Monitoring Tools” and “Data Collection.” There you can find details on different tools you can use to monitor a political process as well as an overview of the data collection process. Because public opinion and budget numbers can shift over the duration of a survey, you must be transparent about the data collection timeframe to ensure the accuracy of inferences gleaned from resulting data.

Tip: Performing this step without clearly defined goals and some level of awareness and support from the community will make it difficult to generate clear results.

Outline your findings

In this step, develop your findings and recommendations and determine how best to share them. Essentially, this is the reporting step. This is when you process the data into information, analyze the data, draw conclusions, and organize the information in a way that can later be communicated to stakeholders and target institutions or officials.

Tip: Avoid speculation. If data has proven inconclusive, it is better to say this than to speculate.

Voice your findings, conclusions and recommendations

This step is where you determine how best to communicate your findings and recommendations to the relevant decision-makers and stakeholders. No matter the communications tool you choose to use, such as a monitoring report, infographic or social media campaign, your core message needs to be communicated clearly and consistently in order to effect change. Developing communications tools and strategy is covered in more detail later in this section.

Evaluate your impact and approach

Finally, evaluate and assess the effectiveness of your initiative and think about ways to improve future iterations of the initiative. This step involves reviewing how well the initiative achieved its objectives and how well the tools worked. Based on this evaluation, the monitoring organization can determine how to improve the tools, better tailor the activities, or organize the team, etc. Generally, it is best to conduct the evaluation when the target political process has come to a recess.

Opportunities and Entry Points

Certain circumstances create particularly good opportunities and entry points for monitoring initiatives. Some examples include:

  • When a government signs onto an international agreement, it is making a very public statement that it will pursue a specific set of objectives. Signing such an agreement makes the government accountable to a multilateral institution for complying with the terms set out in the agreement. This provides an opportunity for CSOs and civil society to supplement or present alternative information to the reports that governments are required to submit under international obligations or commitments. Shadow reports are usually published after or in response to the governmental report.
  • Because elections are mechanisms for holding government officials accountable and are arguably the most visible manifestations of democracy, they can present opportunities for citizens to engage in political processes beyond voting. Taking advantage of the political space created by an election, you can conduct campaign-related monitoring by gathering, analyzing and publicizing information on party platforms, candidates’ follow-through on campaign promises, or compliance with pledges signed during a campaign. These types of monitoring activities allow citizens to establish a set of expectations that can be used to hold public officials accountable for actions before and after an election.
  • Sunshine laws demand that government decision-making processes, as well as the decisions made, are accessible to citizens. Public meeting laws require that governments give citizens advance notice of government meetings, that the agenda is made public ahead of time, and that the meeting minutes are made public afterward. Freedom of information acts (FOIAs) provide citizens with the right to request access to records reflective of governmental decisions and policies. These types of laws open up the necessary political space for citizens and CSOs to effectively monitor political processes. The passage of such laws and policies creates a particularly good opportunity for legislative and budget monitoring.
  • Periods of political transition offer opportunities for CSOs to become involved in forming new constitutions and restructuring government systems and structures. When transitioning to a more democratic system, governments are sometimes more willing to include civil society in planning committees or working groups, thus better positioning them to monitor policy development and implementation.
  • In order to gain membership into intergovernmental organizations, such as the European Union, governments must meet a set of criteria that often includes the protection of political freedoms and a greater voice for citizens. This provides CSOs with increased political space to engage in any of the five types of political process monitoring initiatives.
  • When awarding funding to host country governments, foreign donors often require that the government officials report on how they are spending those funds. This provides CSOs with an opportunity to monitor budgets and track expenditures, even if their country has not adopted any sunshine laws or freedom of information measures.
  • When a CSO’s advocacy campaign has successfully led to the passage of a law or policy, that organization is uniquely situated to then monitor the extent to which it is implemented. During the advocacy process, the CSO might have developed a certain level of expertise in the issue area, created relationships with decision-makers and mobilized a grassroots base. All of those resources can be used to engage in policy implementation monitoring, budget monitoring or expenditure tracking.
  • Many countries have laws requiring transparency and access for hearings and public statements. Partnering with media organizations can increase access to this information in a format digestible by a larger number of people. Recording hearings and publishing statements online can further improve transparency by making it easier for journalists, civil society and members of the public to research and track government activities.

18 “Co/Act: Human-Centered Design for Activists,” National Democratic Institute, June 8, 2021, https://www.ndi.org/publications/coact-human-centered-design-activists.