/writing/ Report Staging Areas

LET’S THINK ABOUT large project reports and our approach to writing them. We rarely get any more direction from a boss than “start writing the report.”

Of course, writing is only one phase of a broader production process. Writing is the product of thinking, organization, and developing a conceptual understanding of how we want to present our project.

It is this preparation phase before the writing begins which is often overlooked; a phase that I am currently consumed with at the moment.

By way of a short background, I am responsible for a close-out report for a large, high-profile project implemented on behalf of a government donor. With nearly five years’ worth of implementation on a nation-wide scale, there is a considerable history behind the project and understanding the story behind is a particular challenge.

Here are a few areas that we are focusing on before we begin writing a single word for the final report.

Staging area. The priority now is to collect data (all qualitative and quantitative information) and organize it into a standardized format which we consider a “staging area.” This staging area is a custom template which prioritizes broad framing of all project events and accomplishments using a simple timeline structure (more on the importance of sequencing below). The staging area is an internal document. It is big, not the most user-friendly, and there remain information gaps. What it lacks in polished presentation, it more than compensates for in utility.

Consider the sources of information for a five-year, multi-dozen million-dollar project: previous deliverable reports, stand-alone technical reports, team interviews, M&E data, and so forth. The challenge with these sources of information is the lack of consistency in formatting, level of detail, and trustworthiness of its accuracy. The staging area allows us to make an initial review of all those data sources and choose what is most important without the pressure of polishing our ideas and writing. It is the evidence which we will use to support our broader claims of project impact. Your staging area becomes the foundation for the report.

Consider how to develop a staging area format. Think about the broader structure which ensures that our data collection process captures all aspects of the project. In my example, we break-away from the oppressiveness of objective-based reporting (often a donor requirement) and focus our underlying structure on how best to explain the project holistically (think theory of change level). For example, we work to build, train, and support implementation of activist-based coalitions. Therefore, our staging area format is structured by each coalition (there are eight total) and the evolutions of each over the five-year period. Each coalition profile is sub-structured by the general phases of the project (identify coalition needs, establish the coalition, train the coalition, oversee coalition activities). Finally, we establish a customized set of data needs for each of the major accomplishments within these phases, by coalition (e.g., regional coverage, technical justification, dates, government engagement, source of information, among others).

Sequencing. Reporting aims to “tell the story of the project.” It surprises me, then, how often we forget the basics of a good story: a beginning, middle, and an end. Reporting on projects over multiple years forces us to concentrate on a timeline to ensure we understand the growth (hopefully) of the project. The staging area allows us to develop a timeline of major accomplishments for each coalition (in this example). Now, we won’t simply be transplanting a timeline into the final report. Donors don’t want simple explanations of events over time. The timeline, however, is crucial for our internal understanding of what happened and why. It is the evidence that we will use when make grand statements like “this program increased participant understanding by 20%.” We need to show how we got there, and the timeline is the foundation for that explanation.

Lastly, the timeline helps us present our work in a logical fashion. Objective-based reporting often chops up the sequence of an initiative or campaign within a broader project. For example, our coalitions will launch a strategy that works in advocacy (Objective 2), awareness raising (Objective 4), and training (Objective 5) in a single reporting period. This work would then be presented in several different sections of the report and we would lose the ability to understand how the activities interact and build on each other. Presenting our work in a sequence as a single initiative is a crucial preparatory step prior to report writing.

Data entry. Writing is hard. It requires thinking and synthesizing a lot of information (often imperfect). It requires using the correct words in the right sequence and in an appropriate tone. Data entry, or simply defined fields of input, are much easier to manage. Our staging area format is focused on quick data entry, with minimal editing and lots of copy and paste (e.g., from reports). This approach allows us to bypass otherwise time-consuming follow-up of information gaps and helps involve a larger number of team members during the reporting process. I have a team of interns with minimal writing experience now working on this process and it is has proved highly effective.

We cannot forget to source where all of our data entries originate from. A simple coding system like ‘FY202Q1 Quarterly Report, pages 10 – 15’ will prove invaluable in the future when we need to verify an entry. Also, where data is missing, we can simply highlight it in red or yellow for follow-up later. We have to remember that a project close-out report is rarely so concerned with the detail of an annual or quarterly report.

What does it all mean? Donors want to see impact. They want the bigger picture; the so what? Our staging area format may seem detail and activity-level heavy. We have to remember that the staging area is the evidence for these larger questions. We, therefore, need to build in a facilitated process in which we identify the bigger picture “take-ways” from each of these activities, as evidence by the data that has been collected in our staging area. The questions are fairly straightforward: What were the major accomplishments of the work, and for each, what are the main talking points we can build upon when we proceed with full writing.

For example, we may say that we trained 10,000 women in how to lobby government officials. Talking points may be: 1) This was the first of such training of its kind in the country; 2) The training was backed by extensive academic and practitioner research. Again, here we do not need to fully develop these ideas out in written form. Bullets points and a brief explanation will suffice for now. These will be explored, discussed, and developed in more detail later. An important step during this process is to obtain input from all levels of the organization, even including the client.

Outline development. There is value in developing out a final report outline in parallel with the staging area format. Bosses are often not concerned with the process and they want results soon. The outline will help appease an eager boss and it demonstrates that we are working towards a final report. Perhaps more importantly, we need to ensure that the staging area format will interface with, or clearly transfer over to, a final report format. There is no sense in collecting data and creating a timeline if it will not be used for the final report. Create an outline and be specific as it is developed in how the staging area data will be used.

Thank you for reading.

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