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Back to basics and telling stories

  • Published: by Amy Samson | Permalink

While writing this blog I thought how nice it was to feel the work cogs turning again and to read something other than parenting 101 blogs. Not recommended by the way, they have a frightening habit of making you feel like you’re doing it all wrong! In my short life as a mum (all nine months of it) I’ve learned that there is no perfect way to do anything but as long as you and baby are happy and thriving – you’re doing it right!

Anyway, to get my work groove on I thought I’d go back to the basics.

At its core, monitoring and evaluation as a practice is essentially about linking past, present and future actions through proper planning, goal setting, consistent data collection, analysis and effective reporting. And repeat.

If you follow this fairly straightforward formula, you have everything you need for robust story telling and feedback into the project, program or organisation.

In theory that is.

For the well over a decade I’ve worked in evaluation, I’ve felt that there has been a lack of focus on effective data collection. Which is crazy because this is the core of everything. We would see projects winding up, needing to conduct an evaluation and being unable to prove their impact properly because the right information hadn’t been collected in any sort of meaningful way. It was either not planned well, not carried out or collected in such a haphazard manner that making head or tail of it was almost impossible. Tough mudder for evaluators!

But there is change in the air.

What’s exciting is a distinct shift towards effective planning and implementation of data collection methods from the very start of a project (or continuously at the organisational level).

Action is being taken on a growing awareness that data needs to be robust and it needs to be targeted.

Collecting every possible piece of information is not only impractical but incredibly overwhelming when it comes to reporting on what matters.

Pressure is always increasing from funders, investors and regulators to prove that what you are doing and what they are throwing money at, is actually having an impact. They want to know if practices are changing, are natural resources are being managed better, has there been a return on investment etc etc etc.

As an evaluator it’s our job to tell your story, or to help you to tell yours in the best possible way. And I’m sure you’ll agree, that the richer and more targeted the data sources, the better.

Merry Christmas!

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
December finds us back in Canada for a family Christmas – the full complement of three children, spouses and three grandchildren! This time in New Brunswick where our daughter has family and has moved back to from their last posting in Quebec Province. From 30+degrees C in Toowoomba to -1 today and a nice covering of snow. The picture shows me at Hopewell Rocks – just outside of Moncton – remarkable because of the high tides and flower pot shaped rocks – and this time with a dusting of snow! It’s the seasonal contrasts that makes it all so exciting – between hemispheres and over the annual cycle.It’s been another full year with new projects and some new directions. From program reviews, project evaluations, visits to New Zealand and new M&E platforms for cotton, sugar and dairy. There has been on-going interest and work in developing M&E frameworks/guides for organisations and large programs. I enjoy this type of work because it establishes the basis for on-going rigorous M&E and provides a way for organisations and programs to better “tell their story”. There is remarkable work being done in the RD&E agricultural and natural resource management sectors – most of it under-reported and hence not understood.

This is also true with regards to the work being done to minimise negative effects of farming on the Great Barrier Reef. I was very pleased to see that coordination positions that were recommended in my review of Reef Plan Education and Extension have been put into place – and there is an even greater emphasis on evaluation of the impact of such strategies! This bodes well for the effectiveness of the combined government, industry, NGO and NRM body interventions seeking to assist with the change process occurring in farming.

A good development for me has been the opening of the “Brisbane West – Wellcamp airport” just half an hour from my house in Toowoomba! So far, Toowoomba – Sydney flights have started – and one that I have already taken advantage of. The picture shows the new airport at sunset when storm clouds were building over the Darling Downs. The house with the Ivy growing over it is one of the great sites around North Sydney where I stayed while doing some work for MLA.

Finally, I have continued to find time to dabble in acrylic painting. The painting attached was based on a photo that Robyn took of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic! I am hoping to keep some space open next year for such creative outlets!

Thanks to all those who have worked with me over this year – and may you all have a good break before getting back into things early in 2015!

Spring, North Queensland, and M&E

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
September ushers Spring in the Southern Hemisphere – and time for a blog update!  In Toowoomba, after a relatively dry summer and then winter, we are hoping for some early spring rains – as is much of the farming lands across Queensland.

Winter and summer are good times to visit North Queensland, and August found us up in Townsville. This provided us with an opportunity to build on our on-going monitoring and evaluation support of reef and beef projects with DAFF (Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) – and see what we had all learned from the last three years with the M&E and what could be modified to even better meet future needs.  The challenge is to avoid duplication of many M&E demands and reporting, avoid collecting data that isn’t used in decision-making and ensure that critical data is captured well.  It is good to work with project teams who proactively work through such challenges and come up with solutions.

Townsville is also the home for the NQ Cowboys (a National Rugby League team) – who, at the time of writing, have made it into the final series.  Their first final clash is against another Queensland team – the Brisbane Broncos. We’ll soon know how they go in the finals – but whatever the outcome, they had a great finish to the season.  As well as getting to a Cowboys game, Ben had the opportunity to explore some of the environs as the picture of Wallaman Falls (north of Townsville) shows.

Meetings in Townsville, also provide an opportunity to visit my mother who lives in Ayr (80 kms to the south of Townsville).  It is a sugar town and home to my earliest memories of cane fires, sugar trains and chewing on sticks of sugar cane!  Having had opportunity to work in the industry through a monitoring and evaluation lense has been very rewarding – M&E provides a means of reflecting back and working towards continual improvement.

Another rewarding experience was an M&E workshop with the NZ Primary Innovation Program (Co-innovation project) in Christchurch.  It was more than a year into the project and we had an opportunity to go back over what we put in place for M&E at the start, how it had worked, what information it had provided for reporting, the gaps and where to go from here.  As you will see from the picture, we had the “log frame” (project and evaluation plan) mapped out on the wall in bright colours to guide our reflections and future planning. Hard for a PowerPoint to be used in the same way!

So come on Spring Rains, the Cowboys and proactive M&E!

Winter 2014

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Jeff's painting of Monet's GardenJeff's grand-daughter EvieJeff and Amy with baby Evie

There is finally a nice crispness to the air in Toowoomba.  With that, and the ticking over into a new financial year, it tells us that the year is half over!  It is a calm across the RD&E sector in Australia.  The projects commissioned to be finished in June are now in and paid for and the ramp up into the new year has not reached full momentum.

It is a good time to reflect on the state of play with evaluation. What I have observed is a much greater interest in impact evaluation from RD&E organisations – a desire to effectively “tell their story” – communicating what value they are delivering to their stakeholder communities in a meaningful way.  The 2011 Productivity Commission review of Rural Development Corporations in 2011 recommended that all RDCs are required to continue to participate in a regular, transparent and comprehensive program-wide project evaluation process – and this has been taken to heart.  From another direction, both in Australia and New Zealand, Levy payers have an increasing say in whether they wish to continue to fund RD&E through the current arrangements – another reason to be able to clearly demonstrate the returns from the collective investment. The day of completing hypothetical benefit-cost analyses going into the future without being grounded in real evaluation data is past.

It’s been about providing clarity in the expectations of funders, deliverers and benefiting stakeholders – ensuring that all are in agreement and on the ‘same page’ when it comes to capturing and reporting those benefits – and issues that need addressing to fuller realise those benefits.  At a recent meeting across RDC representatives, it was also pointed out that RDCs all contribute towards some common outcomes – such as environmental and social indicators – that, if they had a common way of categorising, capturing and reporting on these, the collective impact across RDCs could be demonstrated.  And that is a phase I am looking forward to!

In the meantime, Robyn and I have been fortunate to have been back to London (with the odd side trip – including Berlin, Paris and Monet’s Garden) to meet our 3rd grandchild – and first granddaughter – Evie Rose!  Amy (Evie’s mother) has been working for Coutts J&R for many years – in between stints in London working in evaluation of PR campaigns and programs – and is now on maternity leave.  The family grows!

March 2014 Blog Update

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Canadian lake in acrylicNRM Catchment
This has been a very busy time in work commitments and very interesting projects.  In between I have tried to experiment with the acrylic set that my wife, Robyn gave me for Christmas!  As you can see from the picture, I still have a way to go with it! [The painting is of a lake we walked around in Canada when we were over there recently!] Now, on to the pressing issues emerging work-wise! Back in the 1980s there were many questions being asked about the need for agricultural extension and the role of Government in providing this.  Conversations and conferences looked at issues around market failure, cost recovery, privatisation – and governments gradually decreased their commitment to extension.Rural Development Corporations (RDCs) in Australia started responding to the challenge as governments pulled away – after all, if their research wasn’t used, then the investment was wasted.  RDCs have appointed Industry Development Officers and some have gone into directly funding extension coordinators and staff.  But still, people at farm level engaged in extension type of activities is decreasing in Australia. It is not just about improving profitability – that is a market issue – but because farms cover so much of our productive landscapes, and impact on our waterways, water quality and soil resource – there is a need to provide assistance and guidance in how best to look after this critical and long term resource across Australia.

We have Natural Resource Management bodies providing an oversight of catchments and we still have government departments.  However, in both domains, the focus is increasingly on ‘enabling’ action at the farm level – rather than doing.  But where are the doers?  In some industries, there is a very capable private sector to support agriculture – but there is a lack of people with the skills, resources and mandate to undertake proactive extension and education to work with landholders to improve short and long term sustainability of land and enterprises.  Here is the real gap facing us.

This has all come home to me as I have spent the first three months of this year travelling across Australia and working with a range of projects and organisations.  Not only is there a lack of people in extension but there is a lack of information to show what current land management practices are in place, where changes are needed and what gains have been made over time.  This limits the information available to make a case for more targeted investments in extension.

We (those of us involved in agriculture and natural resource management in Australia) cannot let this situation continue – and we must address it.  This is an area that I am increasingly getting involved with and see as my focus into the next decade.

Meanwhile, I have the opportunity to deliver a paper in Berlin at the International Farming Systems Conference ( on the evaluation of an Innovation System project in agriculture in New Zealand in April – and then back to London to visit Amy!  Exciting times!

October 2013 Blog Update

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Jeff's grandsons Alex and BenniJeff and Ben on Blackcomb Peak - Whistler CanadaCanadian black bears

The year is rapidly coming to a close.  Some months have passed since my last update – and its now not far off Christmas!  In this time, we have managed a visit back to Canada (now that it has warmed up!) to visit family and grandchildren in Vancouver and explore the wilderness in the Rockies and Inner-Passage in Alaska!  More on that later!

It has been another hectic time for evaluation and it brings some fascinating trends.  There is significant interest at state and national industry levels on developing Monitoring and Evaluation Frameworks for guiding investment and reporting back on that investment.  It reminds me of the early 1990s when there was widespread interest in state governments in having Extension Policies and strategies.  I was involved in developing the Extension Strategy Statement at the time for the then Queensland Department of Primary Industries and this turned into my PhD on the ‘meaning’ of an extension policy.

There is, of course, a strong need to link monitoring and evaluation frameworks with the policies and strategies to bring about change – so it has been quite a delay in time to reach this point!  Now that it is time, I am appreciating being part of it.  I would love to see the day when all Rural Development and Natural Resource Management programs are consistently and effectively being evaluated and their impacts captured and reported!  I see that as part of the mission of our business.

Back to Vancouver.  The grandchildren are growing up and we were able to explore around Vancouver with their mother, Jocie, and their Uncle Ben!  The picture on the horse was taken at the Butchet Gardens ( – a favourite place of ours on Vancouver Island. We also managed the aquarium, zoo and science centre.

After being able to play grandparents for a little bit and sadly waving off the family as they went back to the wilds of Qubec, we hired a car and drove over the Rockies to Banf. That’s quite the experience! It made Australia’s Great Dividing Range look very small!  Between the lakes and the mountains – many still capped in snow – it was a very scenic drive.

We followed this up with a week on a wilderness experience – small boat in the inner passage in Alaska from Juneau to Ketchiken. The challenge was to find whales and bears (not in the same place of course).  One interesting element for me was that there was NO internet or phone access!!!!  It took me a while to manage the shakes.  Fortunately Ben was working and the business continued!

We ended up spending some hours drifting among a large pod of feeding humpback whales – lots of pictures of tails disappearing into the deeps.  And, we finally managed to track down bears – including a close encounter with a Brown (Grizzly) mother and cubs!   All part of the experience.  We all survived the encounter and were able to spend some time watching black bears get the last of the salmon run!

The next outing will be to the International Farming Systems Conference, Berlin, to deliver a paper on the evaluation of a co-innovation project that I am working with in New Zealand.  I am expecting to catch up with a good number of people from past days at Wageningen and beyond!

Speaking of Wageningen (where I did my PhD) – anyone for a PhD study on the meaning of monitoring and evaluation frameworks?

April 2013 Blog Update

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Well the year is racing.  It seems like I was just on the Christmas trip to Canada holidays and now it’s Easter!  The last blog was just before Christmas and I included some snow shots from our trip.  There were of course many other snow photos – hard to know when to stop when the landscape is so different to what you are used to. One more that I will put up is of our daughter and grandboys ice fishing!  That was a new experience – and not something you get every day in sunny Queensland!

On the way back to Australia, we stayed over in Hawaii to catch our breath, calibrate the time difference and of course warm up!  One of the warm up exercises was to go and visit the volcanoes for which Hawaii is famous.  It was a little disappointing to be so far from the action – but we could see the red glow in the evening – and walk over the relatively recent lava flows which were extending the island!

Back to the reality of life in Australia and work – and one of my busiest times since starting the business 12 years ago!  For some reason, monitoring and evaluation is in great demand – and not just to do one off project evaluations!  There is a lot more interest in the strategic side – setting up M&E frameworks and data management systems.  There is something very satisfying about being involved in this type of work.

One break from work this year was an opportunity to combine two of my community interests – Toowoomba Landcare Group and the National Heritage Trust!  I mentioned in an earlier blog about my interest in the heritage listed Bulls head Inn – not far from our house.  Well, I have been concerned for a number of years about the number of poorly managed and overgrazed horse paddocks around the city – and finally had funding and an opportunity to organise a workshop looking at managing small horse pastures!  The Bulls Head Inn provided a perfect venue – it has a bit of a run-down horse paddock attached to it.  I lined up Mariette van Den Berg who we have known for a few years (she is doing a PhD on horse feeding) to come and run the workshop at the inn.  It was a great day – and I really felt that we achieved something.

Must be something about horses… I couldn’t pass up a small white metal horse I saw in a local garden shop.  No pasture concerns for this horse!

So coming up: another trip to Chile for some strategic end evaluation planning; to New Zealand to develop evaluation for an interesting co-innovation project; and more work in dairy with extension and evaluation in Australia.  With these activities and the reef projects we are working with, life is neither dull nor boring.  And with each project, we learn something new!

December 2012

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Jeff in Whistler December 2012Jeff with a Snowman December 2012Lake in Vietnam
And the year ends – not with a bang but in white. Just days off Christmas and with the world not ending – despite the dire predictions around the Mayan Calendar!

In my last blog I described visiting Rouyn Noranda (Quebec province, Canada) – then in the summer – and looking for a Moose.  The end of the year finds us back in RN visiting our daughter Jocie, her husband Pat and grandsons Alex and Beni – but with a very different landscape!  Everything is just white!  Snow is covering cars, houses, roads, lakes and trees – and is still falling.

This is very different for us – despite spending three Christmases in Holland and more in the UK.  A first white (snow) Christmas (although one winter in Holland was very frosty).  Having been born in North Queensland where we thought that a cold day was when the temperature went below 15 degrees C, some years spent in Papua New Guinea – and then of course many years in Toowoomba in Southern Queensland where our 4-6 frosts a year was considered a real challenge!

I remember years ago when we lived near Alatou in Papua New Guinea when once a month we could access a radio phone to actually talk with my parents in Australia and being amazed!  Then later – also in PNG, being in the highlands in Goroko and chatting to each my children in different parts of the world using MSN messenger on the internet.  Now Skype takes it all to new heights!  No matter where I am, I can keep in contact with friends, family and clients wherever I am in the world!  See Alex – our Grandson – off on the yellow bus in the morning in RN, and then on to the computer to check emails and write more of a report I am working on!  Such incredible flexibility!

This allows Ben, of course, to work full time for the business from Whistler near Vancouver also in Canada.  Just as well.  The demands for the evaluation management platform that he has developed is increasing all the time – and those of you using it are continually making suggestions as to how it can work even better for them – resulting in a dynamic process which is benefiting all of us.   This Canadian visit, we had a chance to visit him and his girlfriend Sim in the Canadian hub – and see Whistler in full flight.  Its quite a favourite place for working Aussies.  Amy – now working in London evaluating public relation campaigns – is coming over to RN with her husband for Christmas.  Canada is a real gathering place!

This year has seen an increase in demand for evaluation services.  I have been undertaking more work in New Zealand and increasing my dairy connections – now with Dairy Australia (as well as on-going connections with DairyNZ and the Consorcio Lechero in Chile).  There was even a quick visit to Vietnam for ACIAR to facilitate a workshop on Agribusiness projects. So life and work has been very interesting!

All of us from Coutts J&R wish you the best for Christmas and for 2013 and beyond!

Around the world in 50 days

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Farmhouse in Cotswold EnglandCanadian MooseThe Grand Canyon
Travel has been a regular theme of my blogs – and this one is no different!  The last few months have seen me back in Chile running some enjoyable workshops on extension (“but what do we do differently in our extension work once we arrive at the farm?”).  I also had a good excuse to visit the Netherlands to take part in a PhD ceremony – this time on the examining committee’s side (last time was my own public PhD defence in 1994!).  We also managed to go to the Dutch Floriade – a once in a decade flower expo!

This was followed by catching up with our daughter Amy and her husband Chris in London. Amy, of course, has been a key person in Coutts J&R over the decade or more of the business.  She has found a fascinating niche in London overseeing the evaluation of public relation campaigns in government and charities!  Amy still keeps her link with company – which is great!  We got to London pre-games – and just loved the city as always.  We did manage a trip out to the Cotswolds so that I got some fill of stone walls and country lanes.

Then on to Rouyn Noranda in Canada to catch up with our other daughter Jocie – her husband Pat – and grandchildren Alex and Ben!  Rouyn is in the north of Quebec Province – amongst wilderness and lakes and mining towns – quite remote really (but then I guess Toowoomba seems very remote to many people!).  And very French! The name of the game was ‘spot the moose’ – which we did eventually in a wild life park and animal shelter!  But we did spot a ‘wild’ bear crossing a road, and a deer when on a morning walk. Not to mention the beaver that swam in front of us only a few hundred metres from the family’s home!  It was very hard to leave everyone there – but we will be back!

Ben – now living in Whistler in British Columbia – didn’t get a visit.  At least not this time.  Fortunately for us, he was able to hold the fort with much of our work demands.  He certainly adds an important dimension to the business with our web platforms and data analysis!

Our final port of call before returning to Australia was a couple of days in Los Vegas. Now that was an education!  The city is an incredible adult Disney land – and the themes of the casinos and shopping centres fascinating!  Who would have expected gondolas in canals being punted through a shopping centre?  Or dolphins, tigers and lions out behind the shops? Or the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph, great pyramid and the skyline of New York!  And then the Grand Canyon – just magnificent!  Man-made creativity and natural splendour!

So it’s back to work – not that I escaped work completely while away!  It’s the interesting variety that comes my way in this work that makes it so enjoyable – and the rest of this year is shaping up as no different.

April 2012

  • Published: by Jeff Coutts | Permalink
Bulls Head Inn opening dayJeff at the Bulls Head Inn with a bridle
It’s already April and getting cooler.  Leaves are already falling from the few deciduous trees we have in Toowoomba – not quite New England in the Fall!  The year started on the run and hasn’t really stopped.

I’ve found myself (more) involved in two local groups.  I have been in Toowoomba Landcare Group ( for a number of years and am now doing my stint as Chair!  It changes the way you are involved when you have the extra responsibility – and have to face issues like getting funding needed to continue the work!  But it is great to work within your own community with a group of people who have the same aim – improving the environment of our community.

The other group is the local branch of the National Trust.  There is an old Inn from the 1850s very close to where we live in Drayton, Toowoomba – called the Bulls head Inn.  It was first built back before Queensland was even a state and it catered to drovers and bullockies and other travellers before having a life as a post office and private residence.   Recently, the new local branch set its sites on re-invigorating the inn and ensuring that it was a fitting legacy for the community.  My small role has been looking after the “dray shed” (sounds auspicious???).  I found old bridles and saddlery amongst the dirt and cobwebs in the shed and have started to try to save them.  The picture is of me with a bridle with blinkers that was in quite good nick!  Then there is oiling the old timber frames to stop them drying out and cracking.  All good fun – and a nice way to interact with other people.  Over 150 locals turned up at the “re-opening” day for the Inn last weekend!

Meanwhile, the year has already shaped up as some new and interesting projects – as well as revisiting work done in the past.  Some M&E mentoring work is continuing in New Zealand (love going there!) and extension training in Chile and Canberra!  Other new things fit within the spaces.  Fortunately I have Ben – now in Vancouver – providing innovative ways to use the internet to support project evaluations.  So there is always something new.  I wonder what is next around the corner?Somehow, when you spend so much time away – and earning money from helping people with projects and needs, it is good to have opportunities as a volunteer in the local community.