How to select/identify and write indicators

How to Select, Identify and Write Up Indicators

Before moving on to the selection and identification of indicators, please work through the two knowledge sections for this step:

Identifying indicators is the last part of your M&E plan and has three components:

  1. Selecting/identifying and phrasing an indicator or set of indicators for each of your outcomes
  2. Setting a target for the indicator
  3. An initial identification of the source of the information for the indicator and the tool/method that you will use to collect the information

Selecting/or identifying indicators takes some time and thought and might involve some consultation with stakeholders.  Your indicator list will be the blueprint that directs all of your data collection activities. Proving that change has happened often involves making comparisons over time and the  effectiveness of your evaluation will decline if you change your indicators during the implementation process. It is worthwhile spending some time early on to get this right.  If you have been implementing your programme for some time, but you are only preparing an M&E plan now, don't worry. It is a bit like quitting smoking; the sooner the better and beneficial from the moment you do it.

Identifying Indicators

You may start to newly identify and write indicators if there are no standard indicators available, or you will simply look for and select standard, appropriate indicators (for example, those that exist for health and nutrition).  Whether you are newly identifying or selecting from existing indicators, answering the following questions about your outcome statements/outputs or activities will be helpful.

  • What would answer my evaluation question? (Remember Plan: Step 4, where we identified evaluation questions)
  • How will I know that the outcome/output has been achieved or that we are making progress in its achievement? Or you might ask:
  • What will tell me, or point to the fact, that the outcome/output has been achieved or that we are making progress in its achievement? Or you might ask:
  • What will it look like when x/y has happened?  Another way of thinking about this might be:
  • If I were a visitor, what would I see, hear or read that would tell me this phenomenon exists or has happened?

If possible, you should identify various indicator options for each outcome and then choose the one (or compile a set of indicators) that is strongest.  Remember that indicators are approximations and they vary in validity and reliability.  Keep the criteria for ‘good’ indicators in mind when you select them.

How should you phrase an indicator?

The questions above probably helped you to write up indicators with ‘direction’. For example, you might have said that the indicator for an outcome of ‘improved education for South Africans’ might be ‘an increase in the national matric pass rate’.   For an outcome of ‘safer sexual behaviour’ you might have said the indicator should be ‘a decline in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)’.

This was an exercise in identifying the indicator, however, your indicator should be able to show you change in any direction, not only the direction that you would like it to.   When you phrase your indicator, you will not usually include the desired direction of your indicator (which is already captured in your outcome).  In the first example above, we will simply state the indicator as ‘the national matric pass rate’ and in the second example, ‘the STD rate’. However, you might find it more intuitive to write your indicator and include direction; this is really not a big issue, as long as you realise that measurement should be able to show change in either direction.

Generally your indicator will include:

  1. The unit being measured. For example, 'Number of…; Percentage of…, Ratio of…, Incidence of…, Proportion of… Rate of'. The unit can either be described in terms of the number of people involved or how many times we are observing certain phenomena happening. Note that we sometimes include both the percentage and the number in the phrasing of an indicator, because a number in itself does not indicate the magnitude or rate of the result. An example is 5 of 10 or 5 of 200; the percentage itself does not indicate the size of the result. One could ask, "30% of what?" by way of illustration.

  2. The subject/phenomena being measured. This is the essence of the indicator and states exactly what is being measured.  Examples are endless and directly relate to your intervention. This might be knowledge or skill, access to services, presence/absence of a specific disease or health promoting behaviour and so forth.


The way you phrase an indicator can impact its reliability so be sure to keep the criteria  for good indicators in mind when you are phrasing them.  After you have identified and phrased an indicator you can test its strength on our Indicator Strength Tester Tool (see the toolbox section).  




Here are some examples: 

Next, you will need to link targets and means of verification to your indicators which will be explained in the second 'Tried and Tested' article for this step (Plan - Step 5).