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What are the challenges to designing effective MISs?

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How best to research, design, and operationalise management information systems

A management information system (MIS) is one of the crucial elements for gathering real-time information for learning from projects and programmes, providing evidence to policymakers and impacting scale up of government programmes. However, one of the key challenges MISs face is turning complex data into a practical and adaptive system for diverse audiences – thus enabling knowledge sharing.

At OPM, we have extensive experience researching, designing, and operationalising MISs to achieve the most impact. In this article, we take a look at some of the challenges and opportunities in building effective information management systems, and examples of the impact they can have when successfully implemented.

Revising reporting systems

Where no system exists, it is usually evident where one is required. Perhaps more complex is recognising when an existing reporting system needs updating, and which modifications to undertake to ensure the most correct and useful data.

Due to recurring floods and droughts, Namibia faces chronic food deficits and high rates of malnutrition. Vulnerable and marginalised groups are especially affected by inadequate access to food. Having accurate, real-time information available about the food and nutrition security situation is therefore critical to ensure timely response in deteriorating conditions. While Namibia has several components of an early warning system already in place, such as a survey of crop production and monitoring of commodity prices, the gathered information is often inaccurate and infrequent, which can distort the ongoing situation.

We helped develop a modified version of the system to ensure more effective and efficient collection of reliable and relevant information. This can support government efforts to better monitor and respond to food emergencies.

Improving fragmented data

Even with a relatively stable MIS in place, useful and thorough results are only possible if data are monitored and reported in a unified form. Fragmented data can drastically reduce a decision maker’s ability to plan responses and change policies.

Mongolia has many of the elements of an effective food and nutrition surveillance system in place, however much of the necessary data is fragmented. Working with the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labour and other international development organisations, we helped to identify the gaps in institutional governance, quality, and analysis of data required to establish an effective system equipped to respond to ongoing food challenges in the country. 

Using innovative technologies in the field

Since 2013, we have been leading the design, implementation, and evaluation of Bihar Child Support Programme. This conditional cash transfer programme aims to improve child nutrition outcomes across one of India's poorest states. As part of the programme, we developed a mobile phone application to enable frontline service workers to register beneficiaries. This gathered data help to monitor their adherence to programme conditions, and to identify gaps in coverage, service delivery, and payment execution.

Elsewhere, we supported the Mozambican National Institute for Social Action to effectively implement basic social protection programmes, most notably its flagship national social cash transfer programme. We helped design, develop, and test core modules of the programme, integrating the operation with the national IT platform to gather accurate data.

Scaling up capacity

Scaling up capacity within a ministry can help ensure greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability – all essential qualities of a public programme based on data. Evidence is only useful if it can be used effectively and appropriately. For instance, these are key aims of the Government of Bangladesh’s public financial management reform programme – particularly increasing accountability through improved financial oversight. We are working with the government to strengthen the work of the parliamentary committees responsible for overseeing public expenditure and accounts, by focusing on building capacity within these committees and improving public access to information about their work.

We are also helping to strengthen the evidence base around public works programmes (PWPs) and their role as part of a wider social protection strategy in Nepal. By providing technical assistance to the Government of Nepal, we can support the improvement of failing programmes and develop capacity for designing, monitoring, and implementing new ones. Gathered evidence will inform programme improvements, scale up, and its role in national social protection policy.

Training policymakers and their teams can lead directly to benefits for the most vulnerable people, who should be positively impacted by the programmes and policies. In India, for instance, DFID’s Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme aims to increase the uptake of rights and entitlements by socially excluded groups in 120 of the poorest districts. By providing grants and support to a range of civil society organisations working on issues faced by socially excluded groups, the programme aims to improve the uptake of basic health, nutrition, and education services, or livelihood options for targeted groups. We will help train the participating organisations to collect primary data, and report quarterly on their implementation progress, as well as annually on the impacts of their activities. This will generate real time information to improve the performance of the programme, whilst delivering insights on operational and strategic best practice.

Each context, sector and country provide a unique challenge to management information systems, and at OPM we endeavour to apply learnings from our international experience as well as ensure that understanding the local context is key to offering solutions that work. This could be through including local consultants at the forefront of the project team, relying on our international offices when possible, and providing long-term assistance – even if through several short pieces of work.