WaSH M&E Operational Definitions for WaSH Monitoring and Evaluation March 2017

An operational definition describes how a property will be measured. This is distinct from the conceptual definition of a term, which is a commonly understood, abstract definition that may be found in dictionaries (Sevilla et al., 1992). Operational definitions enable different individuals and teams to measure, observe, or quantify a variable in the same way across different contexts, so that their results can be interpreted and compared. For this reason, operational definitions are necessary for obtaining WaSH monitoring and evaluation data that are fit-for-purpose.

Without standard operational definitions, different enumerators could visit the same water source on the same day and assign it different values with respect to source type, functionality, flow rate, continuity, and other variables of interest. For example, the question of whether a water source is “functional” may be reasonably answered in many different ways. A handpump that yields no water at first, then produces a trickle of water (with a flow rate of 0.8 liters per minute) after 60 seconds of vigorous pumping might be classified as “functional” by one observer, “nonfunctional” by another, and “partially functional” by a third. No classification is inherently more valid than the others, but each is meaningless without the criteria used to determine it. If all three observers are collecting data as part of the same monitoring program, their pooled data will be useless. A clear and explicit operational definition of functionality is needed, so that all three observers can collect consistent and compatible measurements.

The following operational definition enables different observers to classify the functionality of a water source in a consistent way: “A functional water source is one with water available at the time of inspection, such that an enumerator could fill a 20-L container within 10 minutes.” This is not necessarily superior to other definitions, but it can be feasibly measured in the field with adequate reproducibility using readily available equipment, and is sufficiently specific and inclusive to enable classification of most water sources under most circumstances.

The operational definitions listed below are by no means definitive or exhaustive. Some are existing operational definitions drawn or adapted from international monitoring efforts such as the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). Others are definitions developed by The Water Institute at UNC, drawing on multiple sources. The definitions below have been used for monitoring and evaluation of water, sanitation, and hygiene programs across multiple contexts, and have proven feasible and useful for this purpose.

WaSH M&E Operational Definitions for WaSH Monitoring and Evaluation March 2017. M. Fisher,  E. Madsen, K. Shields, A. Williams, K. Liang, A. Fechter, R. Cronk. 2017. https://waterinstitute.unc.edu/files/2014/10/Operational-Definitions-3.14.2017.pdf