ADB's new evaluation chief: 'Accountability is our surname'

By Lean Alfred Santos 28 October 2016

Marvin Taylor-Dormond, new director-general of the Asian Development Bank’s Independent Evaluation Department. Photo by: ADB

The Asian Development Bank recently named Marvin Taylor-Dormond as the new director-general of its Independent Evaluation Department — a major appointment as the Manila-based institution gears up preparation for its newest development blueprint, Strategy 2030.

Taylor-Dormond, a Canadian national, is no stranger to evaluation procedures and protocols. He spent the past 10 years with the World Bank Group, including five years leading the financial, private sector operations and sustainable development department* at the Washington, D.C.-based multilateral’s Independent Evaluation Group. He also held senior positions at the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, establishing the institution’s monitoring and evaluation capacities.

The ADB’s new evaluation chief hopes that the independence and accountability in his department will be used to improve and strengthen the development effectiveness of all operational dimensions of the bank over the next five years.

“We are an independent department, therefore accountability is our last name. It is by definition what we do, that's why we're independent of management, [to] ensure that we deliver an objective analysis,” he told Devex in an exclusive interview a week after starting the job. “Independence and objectivity comes with the job.”

Taylor-Dormond, who also held cabinet positions in his native country of Costa Rica, is replacing Vinod Thomas, who retired in August and was also a former chief of the World Bank’s independent evaluation group.

Here are the highlights of our exclusive conversation with ADB’s new evaluation chief Marvin Taylor-Dormond on his vision and insights about independent evaluation and how it plays a part in ensuring effectiveness of development programs and operations.

What is your vision moving forward for the independent evaluation department of ADB? Are you thinking about any changes in focus or operations?

What we are going to apply is what I call a DEEP approach: a focus on delivery, effectiveness, efficiency and people. First we are going to focus on the delivery of our work. Our primary responsibility is to be accountable for what we committed to delivering. Second, is effectiveness both on the accountability side and the learning side. For this, we need to place emphasis on the quality of our work and on developing trust. I don't mind differences with management, as long as there is trust. We're supposed to have differences, or else we would have no reason to exist. But when you have different positions, and no trust, you have conflict. When you have different positions and trust, you have simply disagreements and you can always solve disagreements. We will work on developing trust with management which has to do [with] the quality of our work, and the way we interact with them.

Third, we will focus on the efficiency of our work in terms of making good use of our resources — both human and material resources that we have available to produce and disseminate our work and messages. Finally, we are going to focus on people, because in the end what we produce here is intellectual work. We have to be in a good state of mind so that my staff can produce adequately. We will pay attention to the growth of our staff and to their well-being. This is my approach in managing people, giving attention to two dimensions: caring and daring.

You care for your staff and you create a good environment for them to produce, and at the same time you push them, you dare them to achieve new objectives and horizons. There [should be] an adequate balance between the two dimensions. When you put emphasis only in caring, there would be extreme relaxation among staff and no production. When you pay attention only to daring, you produce frustrated and stressed people [since] you're only focusing on your selfish objectives. It's this balance that we're going to try to strike going forward.

How do you think your experience at the World Bank can help inform your new role? What are the specific areas that you’re planning to focus on?

First of all, I believe that both are high-class institutions. That’s why I have come to this organization; I have a lot of respect for ADB. I've known ADB for a long time, since the 1990s. I used to work in the Asian region and interacted with ADB and other government institutions at the time. Both the World Bank and ADB have a lot to learn from each other in evaluation. I think there is room for improvement in ADB on the project side, on the discipline and use of self-evaluation. There is room to improve also in the area of learning [and] the influence of evaluation at all levels, project and strategic. Those are areas precisely to which we're going to pay a lot of attention.

As I said, we are an independent department, therefore accountability is our last name. It is by definition what we do; that's why we're independent of management [to] ensure we have objective analysis. That comes with the job. The challenge is to enhance the learning part of our work. For the learning part, to be effective, it is necessary that we do timely and high-quality work. At the same time, it also requires a management team in ADB willing to absorb what we are bringing to them. So it is critical to have the support of a good and strong tone at the top from management, starting from the president, about the importance of learning from evaluation. On our part, we will do everything we need to improve the delivery of our work, including high quality and trust. At the same time, we need the complement of the right tone from management so that the organization can absorb what we will have to offer.

What are the unique challenges or practices of evaluation in the Asia-Pacific region?

One of the generic challenges of evaluation is really making it useful to improve the development effectiveness of operations. In the end, that is the ultimate objective of our work — that operations become more effective and that the organization learns from good and bad experiences and improves their operations going forward. The ultimate objective is that people who benefit from the operations of the bank can see an improvement in the quality of services that they're getting. That in itself is a huge challenge.

Another challenge is to protect our independence both in fact and appearance. This is true for us and for all other independent evaluation departments among multilateral development banks. Independence is what makes our work so unique. And if you look at the region, there are particular development challenges that also have an implication upon our work. Most of the countries that this institution is looking after are now middle-income countries, and so the development challenges that are shared by all of these countries are middle-income countries type of problems. They have to do with the difficulty of growing at the same pace that they were growing before [when] they were low income countries, meaning that they have to make smarter use of their resources, particularly the human resources. It's not enough to just add more capital to continue your pace of development. The higher [the] level of development, the more specialized your labor force needs to be; you need more education and more participation and preparation from your labor force. You need not only the force part, but the creative part of your labor force.

In addition to that, countries in this region face the problems of rapid urbanization [and] the dramatic problems of climate change. These are new problems of a growing region — this is the fastest growing region in the world — and these are the problems that ADB has to tackle, and therefore are the issues that we have to be able to address in our evaluations. I mean, how to better understand the impact of projects and policies with respect to climate change, the environment, disasters, urbanization, improving the quality of our labor force in the region, etc. These are the issues that my department has to be capable to address, and for this purpose it has to improve and adjust its mechanisms, processes and methodologies.

How do you ensure "independence" in your independent evaluations, and how do you project that image internally and externally?

Independence is defined as [being] free from material threats to objectivity. Independence therefore is a proxy to objectivity. And what are the material threats to objectivity? For instance, reporting to the party that you are evaluating. If you are reporting to that party, your opinion is compromised. You can get fired by that party if you come up with a bad report. [Another example is] having staff evaluating something that they were part of before or that they implemented before. That would totally compromise their assessment. Similar is evaluating an operation in which you have a family member or you have an interest. These are sort of the material threats to objectivity that will threaten your objective assessment. So the whole exercise of independence is to take care of these material threats and manage any residual risk.

It involves for instance separating the reporting line. I don't report to the [ADB] president so I am not subject to that material threat and we created a number of procedures to avoid conflict of interest of the kind that I just mentioned. There are always risks. You constantly have to be aware of the threats that you are facing and manage the threats. The trick in protecting independence is to constantly manage these remaining and dynamic threats that are around.

Let me emphasize that the notion of independence is important, not only in fact but also in appearance. In the field of evaluation, oversight and control is the understanding of the notion of independence. I have to be factually independent from management in the sense I said, but I also have to be perceived to be independent. I have to take care of this perception too. If perceptions from other places are different, I have to become aware of that and make sure that they are corrected. So far, I have found a good environment and support from the board of ADB. They are also clear about this notion of independence. Likewise, I feel I have already started to build a good working environment with the president and the management in general. It is my purpose going forward to continue nurturing this independence in fact and in appearance that I just defined while strengthening the quality and utility of our work.

As I said, it's not a simple written procedure or a rule. It is a constant exercise so that you remain independent from those who are implementing operations and policies in the organization. [We need] to protect this notion not because it is important for us but because it is important for ADB, it is it is important for the governments and member countries and ultimately for the beneficiaries and stakeholders of this organization and therefore it is a shared responsibility.

*Update, Oct. 29, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that Marvin Taylor-Dormond headed the financial, private sector operations and sustainable development department at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group over the past five years.

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About the author

Lean 2
Lean Alfred Santos@DevexLeanAS

Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.

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