Introduction to monitoring, evaluation and learning for place-based approaches

This section introduces you to MEL in place-based contexts. It covers key concepts including what place-based approaches are, and the value of and challenges involved in doing MEL in place-based contexts.

It dives into core ideas and challenges that you will come across in the current operating environment within the VPS, rather than providing a comprehensive overview of the space.

What do we mean by place-based approaches?

Working in place is a core part of our work—but across government we do it in different ways. From tailoring large government infrastructure projects to local need, to enabling community-owned initiatives, all these ways of working are equally valuable and can support improved community outcomes.

But when we talk about place-based approaches in this toolkit, we mean initiatives which target the specific circumstances of a place and engage the community and a broad range of local organisations from different sectors as active participants in developing and implementing solutions.

Because they are driven by local need, place-based approaches all look different. They may be initiated by community or by government; they may have started out as place-based or be evolving to a more bottom-up approach over time; they may be a stand-alone initiative or form part of a broader project or suite of measures.

But while they look different depending on their area, all place-based work requires similar capabilities from government. Crucially, place-based approaches require government to take on a partnering and enabling role and genuinely share decision-making about what outcomes matter locally and how they can best be achieved.

For more information see the Victorian Government’s Framework for Place-based Approaches.

Monitoring and Evaluation vs Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning: what is the difference and why does it matter?

Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) traditionally has had a greater focus on serving accountability and transparency purposes whereas Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) balances these needs with those of adaptive learning.

Framing this toolkit around MEL acknowledges the critical role that data-driven learning plays in the success of place-based approaches, where an adaptive approach is critical to navigate complexity and the unknown.

Defining MEL

MEL is the systematic approach to the use and collection of data to monitor, evaluate and continuously learn and adapt an initiative throughout its implementation.


Monitoring refers to the routine collection, analysis and use of data, usually internally, to track how an initiative’s previously identified activities, outputs and outcomes are progressing.


Evaluation is the systematic process of collecting and synthesising evidence to determine the merit, worth, value or significance of an initiative to inform decision-making.


Learning refers to the translation of findings from data to improve and develop things as they are being implemented.

Why does good MEL matter?

The design and implementation of MEL can have a significant impact on the success of a place-based initiative.

  • MEL can impact on the quality and integrity of the work:
    • Effective MEL can steer initiatives by determining whether they are on track, whether intended outcomes are being achieved and if any changes or refinements need to be made.
    • Poorly done MEL can lead to adverse outcomes, including creating unnecessary burden or undermining the community-led ethos of the work.
  • MEL practices can influence future funding decisions and policy development by identifying successful work requiring additional funding or replication.
  • Without MEL, there is no evidence that an initiative is making a difference to the community or of the value of government’s investments.

What’s unique about MEL in place-based contexts?

Here we drill into a few of the unique characteristics of place-based work and the implications for how we approach MEL.

Place-based approaches:

  • Address long-term systemic challenges like entrenched disadvantage:
    • Take an equity lens to MEL by identifying cohorts who are or are not benefitting from place-based approaches.
    • Use innovative approaches to show how change is occurring in the short and long term (including systems change).
  • Elevate community voice
    • Government shows up as a partner in MEL to reflect the community-led nature of work.
    • Reflect community priorities in all steps of design and implementation of MEL.
  • Are always innovating and evolving based on local context
    • Enhance focus on collecting data that can inform learning and guide development.
    • Design and implement MEL in a flexible way to support innovation.

MEL within First Nations contexts

This toolkit includes a supplementary thread expressing a richer viewpoint of MEL in First Nations-led, place-based work.

The concepts and methods that are provided are from the experience and learnings of Kowa staff members.

The knowledge and approaches of local First Nations peoples, leaders and custodians of knowledge should lead all place-based works and efforts toward monitoring, impact measurement, evaluation and learning.

While the views expressed in these sections are developed with First Nations-led work in mind, they can also be applied more broadly.

The content on doing MEL within First Nations contexts is underpinned by two key ideas.

1. First Nations agency and leadership should be at the centre of MEL implementation and design

This represents a shift away from a deficit approach of ‘saving’ First Nations communities when approaching place-based work. Such an approach replaces Western evaluative practice and systems thinking with that of First Nations communities, organisations and peoples who are confidently articulating, driving and measuring their own success and using sovereign and decolonised data. Under these conditions, First Nations sovereignty and worldviews can be recognised and centred by all place-based partners.

2. Doing MEL in First Nations-led contexts requires a mindset shift

Changes to the technical approach to MEL are not enough. Rather, the role MEL plays in a place-based initiative needs reframing. Just as in the goals of place-based work, the MEL approach must also acknowledge and account for the systemic inequities faced by First Nations communities.

Key additional resources