I had the privilege this week helping deliver a workshop where ten programs and half a dozen different international managing contractors sat together in order to consider the progress being made in implementing the thinking and working politically agenda. What made the day particularly interesting was that all these different programs are being funded by one donor in one country.
The country was Indonesia and the donor the Government of Australia (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT). The two countries have increasingly close and strategically important ties encompassing trade, security, intelligence, investment and education. As its nearest large neighbour, Australia also has a significant development program in Indonesia – and it covers many sectors. All too rarely do different development programs sit together with their donor colleagues and interrogate frankly and honestly what is working and what isn’t.
We had asked each program to come ready to answer some specific questions.
- Does your program consider itself to ‘think and work politically’ or embrace ‘adaptive management’?
- What does your program understand by these terms?
- How do you operationalise it?
We had also provided participants with a simple framework, which separated the thinking bits and the working bits of the TWP agenda according to three stages of the program ‘cycle’ – selection, design and implementation – as shown in the figure below. (I did ask if it was too FAR-fetched…..nobody blinked)We asked participants to reflect on the framework:
- Summarise key features of your TWP approach against this framework (select the elements you consider most relevant to your program)
- What are the major challenges you have faced in implementing TWP?
- What have you done about them?
- Are you optimistic regarding doing more?
It was not surprising that all programs did indeed consider themselves to be thinking and working politically. All could give convincing examples of in-year budget flexibility and the autonomy to slow-down or speed up implementation. What was less clear – and for which we had no time to deepen the investigation – was the extent to which this was just a happy result of the nature of the contract with DFAT or was this flexibility built in at the design stage, i.e. purposively setting up each project to be TWP from the outset and carrying this over to its operational and program management arrangements? Most also confirmed that they had the ability to add new activities within the annual plan and budget as well as revise the way in which outputs were articulated.
Theories of change were reviewed regularly, and alterations made to budgets activities and outputs – ok, modest alterations but alterations, nonetheless. All programs have embedded process for review and reflection – three- and six- monthly. This seems now mainstream. Strategy testing was mentioned. Someone even warned us about the dangers of isomorphic mimicry (and with a straight face too). Programs spoke about their close relationships with both DFAT and the Government of Indonesia and were clearly skilled in navigating how they ‘responded’ to both.
Equally unsurprising, most programs were struggling with effectively linking implementation, monitoring, learning and adaption – the ‘working politically’ bit of the design and implementations stages (see my blog of February 23rd, 2019). Implementation teams tend to be just that – implementation teams.
I was impressed too with the fact that programs dealing with politically and socially contentious issues, such as child marriage, had invested significantly more time and effort at the design stage, weighing up the nature of the problem, to whom it actually was a problem (and to whom it was not!), and judging the strength of any nascent networks or ‘coalitions for change’ (Jaime Faustino of the original ‘Coalitions for Change’ program in the Philippines would have been proud of these teams). Real evidence of deep thinking politically at selection and design. This confirmed for me that better forethought and planning does actually lead to better development – undermining Easterly’s argument that we should all give up planning and just go wandering around searching for epiphanies.
I came away rather more impressed than I was expecting. Of course, one morning cannot be definitive, but sufficient evidence was provided to suggest many of the lessons of PDIA and DDD have been internalized by development practitioners (many had completed the Harvard on-line course).
One of the most interesting discussions followed an observation by a couple of participants that there can be misconceptions of TWP, in that it allows designers (and I can think of no better way of putting it) ‘to get away with’ a looser articulation of activities, outputs and outcomes, a less rigorous planning process, a reduced need for a reliable baseline, and no-need to track milestones along the way. Nothing could be further from the truth; the opposite is the case. For TWP to be effective it needs to be ddd (no capitals here!):
- it needs a stronger and more diverse data base as well as data collection and monitoring through implementation. If we are to be flexible, adaptive and responsive we need to be sure about just how the context is changing and to what extent;
- TWP also requires discipline – discipline in problem definition, articulating a persuasive theory of change (and not trying to get by with a theory of action), and maintaining a relentless focus on the broader developmental goal being sought; and
- TWP needs deliberation: the ability to choose wisely at the selection stage; during implementation regularly to reflect on the reasons explaining progress or otherwise; knowing when to change course; and choosing the right milestones which will indeed indicate our direction of travel.
The next step (In Canberra at least) will be to call the first meeting of an Australian Community of Practice on TWP. Both the International and the Washington DC ‘franchises’ are thriving. Time to get going down under. With DFAT leading the way……