The world of international development and humanitarian action is complex and what to do and how to do it is often unclear. But an obvious truth stands out: if you want to know what people want, you must ask them.
Gathering input directly from programme constituents is important for transparency, sustainability and – more generally – as a way of understanding what effect a programme is having on people’s lives.
Most – if not all – programmes have some sort of feedback mechanism built into their community engagement efforts. This information is then captured in a database and makes its way to a donor report. Certain organisations might also discuss constituent feedback at project meetings or during a reflection/learning workshop.
But such processes often fail to influence programme decision-making. This is an issue.
One-way, extractive feedback mechanisms can lead to expectation misalignment, disengagement, and a legacy of broken promises where trust cannot be meaningfully built. In contrast, programmes that successfully adapted based on constituent engagement found increased levels of trust between themselves and a community, and ultimately, felt they’d contributed to shifting accountably and power in a more equitable direction.
Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done.
Our new research shines some light on different strategies practitioners have used and captures five main elements that have helped maximise this ‘feedback-based adaptation’. The research is based on surveys and interviews with teams implementing programmes across the world.
Why programmes fail to meaningfully act on feedback
In part, organisations fail to act on constituent engagement because changing an already-running programme can be very difficult. Rigid procurement processes can result in workplans, budgets and MEL (monitoring, evaluation, and learning) frameworks that are difficult to adapt, even in the face of evidence that change is needed.
Incentives to ‘close the loop’ with regards to feedback are also not always there. Many staff members are not empowered to speak up and report issues that may then lead to onerous contract, budget or workplan amendments.
How adaptive management can bridge the gap between listening and acting.
Thankfully, adaptive management can help tackle this complex problem. Adaptive management principles create space for learning and reflection. They allow teams to make changes to programmes as they go.
Donors and programme leaders are becoming more open to this way of working. As a result, we’re seeing flexible programming based on an understanding that the exact pathway towards a desired outcome cannot always be known in advance.
Together, adaptive management and constituent engagement can be a powerful combination for implementing responsive, effective and sustainable programmes. Constituent feedback and input therefore becomes the key source of information about what might need to change.
How to link adaptive management and constituent engagement
We know from experience that ‘good things’ don’t automatically fit together. Ensuring that constituent feedback and engagement can actually speak to adaptive (or flexible) management practice requires programme teams to dedicate time, resources and abilities to shift existing incentives and ways of working. But in speaking to people in programmes that did manage to meaningfully act on feedback, we found five common patterns that allowed them to so.
1. Feedback and input from constituents and larger communities needs to be a central part of the programme’s MEL framework
Strong internal systems (such as having a person or committee in charge of reporting back to programme managers on feedback received, or regular community reflection sessions), as well as referral pathways, need to accompany this to ensure that constituent insights actually make their way into both internal and external learning.
2. Staff themselves need to value engagement and adaptation
This might require new ways of thinking about recruitment and investment in staff skills. We’ve observed that active listening, flexibility and open mindedness, as well as a preference for iterative learning, are particularly important and can be highlighted in interview and recruitment practice.
3. Organisational decision-makers must champion this way of working and make that known
This can help create the right incentives to not just collect feedback, but act on it too. It can reassure programme staff and partners that making changes based on feedback is not a sign that someone has done something ‘wrong’.
4. Clear points of reflection and action are determined ahead of time
Teams need to know when constituent feedback will be reflected on, and when decisions will be made (no matter what those end up being). This will often mean advance agreement on questions like: ‘When, according to the delivery plan, will decisions be made about the programme? Who will make them? When and in what format does [constituent] input or feedback need to be delivered to feed into decision-making?’
5. Programmes need to create meaningful roles for constituents
People are not data sources, and so engagement should take place throughout the programme cycle, with roles for people developed jointly. Some organisations have robust participatory programme design, for example, or bring in community members to collect feedback and then collaboratively decide what actions need to be taken.
There will, of course, always be elements outside the realm of control for a programme. But the points above go a long way to creating the right set of incentives for learning, while making sure the right people are empowered to take action.
This blog is based on recent research conducted by ODI and Feedback Labs under the LearnAdapt programme. To find out more, sign up to our LearnAdapt workshop on 11 November. Programme teams will discuss lessons learnt and offer practical tips on how to incorporate the above elements into programmes.