Playing in the sand-box or the tar-pit? Supporting politically-informed programming in large ‘Facilities’

As I exited my last position at The Asia Foundation, William Cole challenged me to:

…report back in a year and tell me if its possible to think and work politically in high-value, multi-sector facility mechanisms

Making tar in Bangladesh (wearing flip flops).

So, after our involvement in three such ‘Facilities’ over the last 12-18 months[1], what is the verdict?

Are we playing the metaphorical sand-pit? Or are we weighed down by pre-commitments, the purely technical aspects of reform and rigid program plans and budgets (i.e. the tar-pit)?

Graham and I have just published this working paper, which reflects our views on this very question[2].

Our findings (i): on the international theory and literature

When contrasting our experience to what international theory and literature tells us – our headline finding is that progress on thinking and working politically (TWP[3]) in Facilities, of the sort we implement, is mixed.

Some aspects of the agenda are easier to operationalise than others: taking account of context, appreciating institutions (at least formal ones), designing regular review and reflection exercises. These are mainly the ‘thinking’ parts of TWP.

By contrast – and this is perhaps not surprising – the ‘working’ parts of TWP are more challenging: understanding and responding to the incentives and interests of key individuals, the potential role of collective action, getting the right mix of staff and partners, transitioning the principal-agent relationship between donor and contractor to one based on partnership (although this may always be beyond us by its very nature), having back-up plans and strategies in place when unforeseen ‘stuff happens’, and having the right skills and incentives to implement, learn and adapt as we go.

Indeed of this list of challenges, we believe the most demanding requirement of TWP is the last point – applying the search frame approach (i.e. learning, testing and adapting and as you go). Part of the challenge extends from how teams are structured and perceive themselves, with monitoring, evaluation and learning usually hived off to a separate part of the organisation to the delivery teams. Another reason for this difficulty is that large, multi-sector Facilities often create their own constraints to working politically. The understandable need to produce immediate results and carry over inherited projects, at least initially, favours doing development pretty much the same as it was done previously.

Our findings (ii): the grubby reality of applying TWP in facilities 

When reflecting on what has helped or hindered our teams from applying the search frame on a day-to-day basis: we found that there were a common set of systems, capabilities and incentives needed in both (1) the donor-managing contractor relationship and (2) the managing contractor itself – to drive TWP.


On the right is our take on what donors can do to incentivise a search frame approach – and prevent staff on both sides from slipping back into more pre-planned project management approaches (i.e. did we faithfully implement our activity plan as agreed at design?).

Similarly, we believe the following minimum factors are needed in the managing contractor to ensure they can match the rhetoric and actually ‘do TWP’ in Facilities:

  • a system for problem selection and identification which preferences local partners and the political dimensions of reform;
  • an approach to developing multiple theories of change (or action) for the one problem;
  • a system of monitoring and learning which is embedded in design and implementation;
  • a budget management system that allows flexibility to move funds between activities and work streams in response to performance and changes in political context;
  • a management structure that delegates high levels of discretion over activities and budgets, and;
  • high numbers of national staff in program management positions – with a focus on recruiting staff with political knowledge and ‘insider’ networks specific to the problem at hand.

Summing up

While much of what we have outlined echoes the long list of lessons from international experience, we believe that – if we are serious about ‘doing TWP’ in Facilities – it is helpful to conceive of different ways of structuring donor-managing contractor relationships and performance expectations, to that which is currently the norm.

In particular, the point of accountability needs to shift away from the input / output level and towards outcome level, coupled with a relentless focus on the quality of a managing contractors program and operational systems, evidence and decision making criteria and their ability to act on learning (especially learning from failure).

In many respects, this approach can challenge how risk and risk mitigation are sometimes perceived in donor agencies (i.e. seek to know and control as many variables as possible that could impact on a program outputs). Indeed, it is fair to ask “how on earth can a donor be confident that the managing contractor will deliver if they relinquish control over the minutiae of program management?” However, in our assessment we believe that the mix of accountabilities discussed above can, under the right circumstances, help mitigate risk by reducing the burden on donors to take the responsibility for decisions on inputs / outputs (issues which the donor may not be familiar, by virtue of the fact that the managing contractor deals with them daily).

Indeed, the approach we propose probably raises the stakes for implementers. By holding managing contractors to account for the quality of their decisions, program systems and outcomes – they are now responsible for the ultimate ‘leap of faith’ in the program logic: that their choice of outputs, in an unpredictable foreign country, will indeed deliver good development outcomes.  This is a challenge that we think the contracting industry can and should rise to.

Lavinia Tyrrel is the Senior Policy Officer for Governance at Abt Associates. 


[1] The Australian Government funded KOMPAK in Indonesia, the PNG Governance Facility and the Partnership for Human Development in Timor Leste.

[2] We have to subject the unsuspecting world to our proselytizing somehow…

[3] The use term TWP is used in our paper as a catch-all for the following three major bodies of work: Doing Development Differently (DDD), Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and Thinking and Working Politically (TWP).

3 thoughts on “Playing in the sand-box or the tar-pit? Supporting politically-informed programming in large ‘Facilities’

  1. Sara Webb

    Thanks for the post; a valuable reflection on TWP in facilities. I’d posit, though, that your summary of what is required to make TWP work in facilitates applies equally to any project or program, whether it’s a smaller aid investment managed by a contractor, managed by an NGO or any other organisation. Indeed, your list of list of necessary factors to ‘do’ TWP also applies to how DFAT itself (and any other development agency) could and should work!


  2. Pingback: Links I Liked | From Poverty to Power

  3. Pingback: Roundup: why people participate in politics and tweet storms, problems with generalizing research, throwing statistics out with the bathwater – Methodical Snark

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