Individuals working within the water, sanitation and hygiene for development (WASH) sector grapple daily with complex technical, social, economic, and environmental issues that often produce unexpected outcomes that are difficult to plan for and resolve. Here we propose a method we are calling the ‘Participatory Systems-based Planning and Evaluation Process’ (PS-PEP) that combines structural factor analysis and collaborative modeling to guide teams of practitioners, researchers, and other stakeholders through a process of modeling and interpreting how factors systemically and dynamically influence sustained access to WASH services. The use and utility of the PS-PEP is demonstrated with a regional team of water committee members in the municipality of Jalapa, Nicaragua who participated in a two-day modeling workshop. Water committee members left the workshop with a clear set of action items for water service planning and management in Jalapa, informed by the analysis of systemic influences and dependencies between key service factors. In so doing, we find that the PS-PEP provides a powerful tool for WASH project or program planning, evaluation, management and policy, the continued use of which could offer unprecedented growth in understanding of WASH service complexity for a broad spectrum of service contexts.

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