Time-Saving on USAID Report Writing
Staff often complain about report writing cutting into program work. Program reports are sometimes viewed as a burden, but it can be simplified if writers prioritize the most important news in understandable language. This is not an English as a second language issue because people can easily verbally summarize highlights from their work in conversation.
So what is the problem? I blame story-telling traditions that start at the beginning, vocabulary choices that seek to impress rather than communicate, formal writing in school work and often an implied message from home offices that the reports matter more than the work.
When speaking to managers who ask how a meeting went while passing in the hallway, staff often do a better job summarizing events verbally than they do in writing. Translating this verbal exchange into the written word sometimes helps with report writers.
Report templates with a structure that is easy and time-saving often help managers. The first sentence should summarize what issue was decided, argued, or discussed. The results and impact of the meeting or event matter the most, and everything else is secondary.
A diagram for a lead sentence sometimes helps to summarize:
Who: What agency, organization or leader
What: X topic/project/problem
Action: was decided/debated/reviewed/presented/trained
Resulting in: what was decided (if nothing, say it)
Why: This matters because…
Where: at a meeting/town hall/work shop/media interview
When: at X location on X date
Numbers: estimated or actual beneficiaries, impacted persons
A bad summary statement:
“The Chair and four members met on November 3, 2016 in the village to discuss culverts and were served lunch.” This is not news, a result, or even very interesting.
Try results-based information first:
The Chair and the Council agreed today in a meeting to move quickly on the construction timing for the culvert in the village to take advantage of the autumn weather and to finish before the winter rains.
This could be even summarized more simply:
Everyone decided to finish culvert construction while the weather is dry before the rains begin. The culvert will also be needed during the rainy season for people to get to town and school.
Supporting sentences after the first summary sentence in the report:
- The reason for the decision was X, X and X.
- Arguments or concerns were X, X and X.
- Issues clarified included X, X and X.
- The meeting/town hall/workshop/media interview also addressed another topic/project/problem X.
- The next step/meeting/discussion is planned for X date to discuss another topic/project/problem.
Count numbers or locate data to show impact:
Many indicators or data are attached to benchmark goals such as impacted persons, beneficiaries, numbers trained, or people contacted. Data can include:
- A reliable source or person can be quoted for numbers or data (census data, school enrollment staff or Ministry of Health official).
- Sometimes you can calculate data based on some analysis, a survey or observation (daily market visitors are estimated at 245 people, based on project staff observations).
- An estimate or range can be described with how numbers are collected or estimated in a footnote at the bottom of the page.
- Participant data is sometimes collected for attendees, participants or beneficiaries and summarized in a report. “Participants included 12 male and 14 female engineers,” or “All members of the city council attended the meeting.” Gender counts are important to USAID and some donors to ensure that women are being included. Sign-in sheets or attendance can be attached as a separate document, if necessary.
Report Templates Support Final Reports
Usually the report template should match all of the reporting needs through the life-cycle of the project. Reports should make everyone’s lives easier, not harder. There is nothing worse than a monitoring department that was not involved in developing a template, who later spend time harassing staff for missing data at report deadlines.
Weekly reports can be facilitated by providing a template to help with bullet points, which forces people to state information in a short and concise manner. Having a template is especially important if staff or volunteers are reporting from the field or from program departments.
Here is a real life example of two projects doing the same work in different regions. The first project had a weekly reporting template that was based on the structure of the final report. The second project had multiple report formats through the lifecycle of the project over four years. You can imagine which program saved thousands of hours in staff time on report writing.
Consider a weekly report format that includes:
Progress on Indicators/Results:
- These are the most important accomplishments or results of the week. The reporting of indicators or results shows that the activities are aligned and work to goals and they are not random activities.
- The monitoring team will not bother you if a specific indicator or goal is stated in the report. This saves time in reporting throughout the lifecycle of the program because results can be cut and pasted in monthly, quarterly and yearly reports.
- Challenges are usually included in order to help management understand problems. This should be kept in a bullet format, so people do not focus their attention on writing long explanations of their problems.
- When people hide problems or try to fix them on their own, challenges sometimes become bigger problems as they grow in size and scope. Managers and leaders of organizations should be aware of this, and must determine how to support staff, handle problems or address issues.
Activities to Results
- It is rare for there to be results or progress on indicators each week. This section shows managers how work moved forward towards results.
- Administration sometime consumes considerable time. This is where hiring staff, internal meetings or training, creation of materials, event organization, and translation is included.
- Keep this in bullet form so it does not become unmanageable to write or read.
- These are all the program work that lies ahead, listed by importance. Managers will get a sense of progress, and staff can mentally prepare for the week ahead and focus on the results.
- This list includes hiring staff, internal meetings or training, creation of materials, printing, invitations, event organization, and translation. It helps administrative teams to understand what is next and what is needed.
- A bullet format is helpful so this section does not get too long. If this is the bulk of the report after the start-up phase of the project, the staff is spending too much time on administrative issues.
 Data can be described in a footnote. The total of 285 market visitors was calculated by averaging busy and slower days during a week in September. If using a quote, “There are roughly 250 shoppers on weekdays at the market,” according to the Manager.