Lately, governments around the globe have been feeling the pinch — and they’ve been looking for ways to streamline operations and provide services more efficiently and effectively.
This sharpened focus on value-for-money has put a spotlight on the importance of reliable ways to report spending, monitor performance, and evaluate the impact of development projects.
Synergy International Systems Inc. is a Washington, D.C.-area software development firm that helps governments and organizations working in development achieve precisely that overarching goal — to improve their operations and decision-making by effectively managing performance and results data. The company, founded in 1997, is dedicated to bringing private sector expertise to public sector management, and it has partnered with the United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others to do so.
Governments often exhibit a healthy skepticism of new technologies because they worry that these might become added burdens rather than viable solutions, says Ashot Hovanesian, Synergy’s CEO and founder.
“Our goal is to create information systems for people who are doing their daily jobs in the government,” Hovanesian says. “We try to bring the power of information technology to professionals who are trained in a field other than IT. Without sacrificing the power of the solution we provide, we create systems that are easy to use.”
The Synergy approach
At the heart of Synergy’s offering is its technology platform, the Intelligent Data Manager. IDM is a modular, commercial off-the-shelf platform that allows organizations to choose a customized application consisting of separate yet combinable tools for data collection, analysis and reporting, as well as workflow management. It offers everything from inputting indicators online to visualizing project data through GIS maps to rapidly generating complex reports. This platform is what powers the company’s various software product lines, from the internationally awarded Development Assistance Database to its increasingly in-demand monitoring and evaluation software.
Synergy continuously invests in refining and expanding its IDM technology so that it can deliver user-friendly and flexible applications. The company employs more than 100 professionals in charge of project implementation, on top of 45 experts dedicated solely to research and development.
Korina Kalopsidiotou, one of Synergy’s senior systems analysts, says she usually gets involved in a project right after a contract has been signed.
“I go with a team to the country and meet with stakeholders to determine the kind of information they need to capture in the system,” Kalopsidiotou says of her job. “Upon completion of the needs assessment, I develop system specifications and relevant prototypes. As soon as these are approved by the client, I manage the software development and the project implementation.”
What may be unique about Synergy’s approach is its relentless focus on presenting prototypes to the client, collecting feedback and finetuning the system in line with the client’s vision — in other words, an iterative process of agile software development that creates synergy between the company and the client. Thanks to this methodology, the company is able to build software that is well tailored to the client’s present expectations and at the same time scalable to address the client’s evolving needs.
Once the system is deployed, Synergy experts train system administrators, end users as well as other trainers. The company also offers its clients technical support and capacity building services. And the system is owned by the client, meaning that Synergy has no proprietary rights to the data or the system itself.
Monitoring and evaluation
Among Synergy’s flagship projects is the development of a web-based monitoring information system for the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future as part of a consortium led by Abt Associates. The system — formally called the Feed the Future Monitoring System — is being used to collect and report data on U.S. government-funded food security activities around the world. It is used by implementing partners, country missions and USAID headquarters, as well as other U.S. federal agencies that make up the initiative such as the Millennium Challenge Corp., the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Treasury Department, and the Peace Corps. With about 600 users globally, FTFMS currently tracks a portfolio of more than 1,600 activities in 130 countries, including all 19 Feed the Future focus countries.
“The Feed the Future Monitoring System is the backbone of the U.S. government’s approach to track progress and manage project performance under the Feed the Future global hunger and food security initiative. The system enables us to provide accountability for our work. We were excited to develop this system with our partners at Synergy and Abt Associates in the early stages of the initiative. It has been a useful tool in measuring results such as those highlighted in the first Feed the Future progress report, which was issued in October,” according to Emily Hogue, monitoring and evaluation specialist at USAID’s Bureau for Food Security.
Synergy also creates enterprise-level M&E applications specifically for countries that have entered into a compact with MCC, another major U.S. donor. In Mozambique, for instance, the company has set up a system that monitors the implementation and performance of all programs and activities under the five-year, $506 million compact between MCC and the Mozambican government.
Post-disaster and post-conflict recovery
Synergy’s capacity to swiftly develop information systems has also proven important in the aftermath of disasters and other emergencies that often prompt a sudden outpouring of aid.
Take, for instance, the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. The influx of billions of dollars in aid that followed increased the urgent need for a system to properly monitor reconstruction projects in the affected countries. Synergy was tapped to create it.
“There was high pressure,” Hovanesian remembers. “You needed a powerful IT system that would have taken months or even years to develop. We were able to put together solutions for each of the four affected countries within just four to six weeks, thanks to our off-the-shelf solutions that we can customize depending on the need of the project.”
In Sri Lanka, one country affected by the tsunami, Synergy’s engagement in developing an information system for the government has since evolved significantly: from just tracking tsunami assistance to a government-wide M&E system that manages both external assistance projects and the Sri Lankan government’s public investments. This system — the Integrated National Development Information System, or INDIS— was developed and implemented in partnership with the U.N. Development Program and Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Finance and Planning.
By compiling information about external assistance and government investments in one unified database, says Hovanesian, INDIS allows the Sri Lankan government and its development partners to identify what is already being done, where the gaps are, and how best to address those gaps.
Synergy has had a similar experience — and success — in Iraq. In 2005, it established a Development Assistance Database, or DAD, for the Ministry of Planning to help with post-war reconstruction planning and monitoring.
The Iraq Development Management System, or IDMS, which was developed in partnership with UNDP, USAID, the European Commission, the U.N. Office for Project Services, and the government of Spain, builds upon the previous DAD system. IDMS is an online system that manages external assistance and capital investment projects implemented throughout the country. But it not only tracks projects, but also enables managing business processes related to the submission, review and approval of capital investment projects as part of Iraq’s annual budget preparation.
Assessing Synergy’s work in Iraq, Richard Cox, participatory governance coordinator and program manager at UNDP Iraq, remarked: “Synergy has been involved in all stages — from the inception to the implementation of the system in Iraq … Synergy offers two types of expertise — expertise that we required [for the project]. First, they understand about development, they understand the world of development. The second thing is their ICT knowledge. Bringing those two areas of expertise together into a coherent path is the value of Synergy. You don’t just get IT experts or computer programmers who have no idea of what the world of development is about. They got those two very precious levels of expertise … They have worked with the U.N. so extensively that they understand how the U.N. works and what our constraints are.”
Helping governments better manage development projects is not all that Synergy does in post-crisis countries. Another growing area of work is judicial reform. Countries emerging from violent conflict or misrule are often marked by woefully dysfunctional judicial systems where, among other problems, record-keeping and case tracking are done entirely manually. This leads to a whole host of problems, such as an inability to manage large quantities of information, case backlog and judicial improprieties. At a deeper level, such shortcomings do little to foster public trust in the judiciary — hence the importance of computerizing court operations to help improve the efficiency, transparency, and accountability of the judicial system. In Iraq, Synergy is developing a court case management system to achieve precisely this goal. According to Kalopsidiotou, who’s in charge of the project, Synergy developed a system that allows three Iraqi courts, as part of a pilot project, to manage all stages of a legal case and monitor court statistics. Synergy is also developing a similar system at the national level in Lesotho.
Transparency and accountability
In Kenya, Synergy developed a management information system that monitors the design, development and implementation of donor and government development projects. The Electronic Projects Monitoring System, or e-ProMIS, is a government-financed initiative that captures information about these projects and makes them publicly available through an online portal. Information available through the portal includes project justification documents and progress reports based on indicators like Kenya’s Vision 2030 strategy and the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.
Overseen by Kenya’s Ministry of Finance and Treasury, e-ProMIS is used by more than 42 government agencies. Synergy created the system based on specifications and guidelines by Kenya’s finance ministry, Christopher Oisebe, chief economist there, tells Devex.
“Synergy has a very competent team that we worked with,” Oisebe says. “We learned a lot from them given that they have developed a number of systems before in around 30 countries. Even if we already had our specifications, we tried as much as we could to learn from Synergy’s expertise and competencies in systems development.”
Country ownership and the way forward
The ultimate measure of success, in Synergy’s view, is not how well it delivers software to a client, but rather how that software empowers the client to overcome informational challenges, improve business practices, and make decisions based on good data and analytics.
Synergy currently works in about 30 countries, and in each case it strives to ensure that the client is ultimately able to manage the software on its own.
“Our goal is to gradually work ourselves out of a given software implementation, and to make our clients less and less dependent on us over time,” Hovanesian says.
The company is now focusing on its next generation of M&E software technology and on applying its expertise to other areas of the public sector.
“We feel that we are in a very good place in terms of growth, we have diversified sectors and clients,” Hovanesian says. “We are confident that Synergy is on the right track both domestically and internationally. And we are looking forward to seeing Synergy expand in the coming years.”
As senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributes to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.