By Miriam Taegtmeyer, 1 December 2014

I am feeling good about the recent REACHOUT external review undertaken by the European Commission so I thought I would share some reflections on what went well and what more needs to happen. 

When we first heard that we would have an external review we were very uncertain exactly what this would involve and it was a bit nerve racking preparing for it. This review came after our first annual report and was intended to be a more in-depth exploration of our research, management and progress

External reviews by the European Commission are rare events, reserved for complex projects and generally led by senior experts in the field.  We really didn’t know what to expect so asked around only to discover that there has never been one within a Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine EC-funded project. 

The review was an opportunity to share some of the hard work we have been doing and to get feedback. We prepared proactively and set up a pre-review meeting to share a brief presentation to take the reviewer through our project aims and objectives, our partners, our work, and our successes and challenges to date. The pre-review Skype was helpful in guiding us on what the reviewer was thinking and what the focus of the face to face meeting in Brussels would be, as well as discussing the actual process the reviewer would go through. We also discovered that external reviewers have a standard template to fill out and this was in fact a publically available document on the European Commission website. You can find it here if you ever need it.

The reviewer only had access to the European Commission reports and deliverables and publically available documents. So we decided to make our intranet fully available to the reviewer and created a folder for him where we uploaded copies of key documents that provided evidence for us meeting each project milestone.  

The process itself was of exceptional rigour and we were held to high standards. Our documents were checked and cross referenced in detail, our progress examined and big picture questions asked. It was a privilege to have someone with so much interest and experience in community health workers going through our work and making helpful suggestions.

The review results were ultimately very positive, with some encouraging comments made about our progress to date and our likely outcomes as a consortium. It also threw up some big questions for us and has led to reflection in the team and with our Expert Review Group. What is the legacy of REACHOUT’s capacity development approach going to be and how will progress be measured? Are we engaging an appropriate level of policy maker and how will we know what impact our research uptake activities will have? Above all it has led us as a team to review our theory of change and associated indicators as well as instigating a more integrated approach to our monitoring and evaluation.

We were given an opportunity to formally respond to the reviewer’s comments, which we did with a one-pager, designed to update the European Commission on the steps we were taking to address any issues. The only response we then had from the European Commission was a request for copies of updated strategy documents once they were finalised, and payment of our first period’s financial claims.

In hindsight, while very time consuming and anxiety inducing, we feel the process was a positive one for REACHOUT. It allowed us to bask a little in our early success, to reflect on areas in which we could improve our approach, and to educate our donors on the intricacies of our project design and implementation – three positive outcomes in one!

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