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Pushing forward to link learning and accountability

2011 July 9
Below the surface rich insights await
(with thanks to

Donor organisations (from INGOs to bilateral aid agencies) have a responsibility and important role to play in creating space for learning processes that meet diverse information needs, pills which can increase the likelihood of effectiveness, purchase and, as part of this, contribute to upward accountability needs. Last month Irene attended Berlin’s Civil Society Centre event on ‘Measuring Impact’ where participants discussed the struggle to balance learning to do things better with accountability for results.

Knowing what works for whom and in which contexts is crucial for doing things better. You cannot be accountable if you do not learn.  International aid flows through multiple relations of donors and grantees each of whom need management systems and incentive structures to encourage and strengthen learning within and between organisations.

‘Learning’ is a slippery container term that requires asking: learning for whom and learning for what. Answers will shape what kind of evidence will be sought, when and how often evidence will be analysed, and what it will lead to – scientific conclusions, funding decisions, operational tweaking, fundamental reorientation, and so forth.

We need two kinds of learning:

(1)  Lessons from independent research and from evaluation evidence.

(2)  Mutual learning from practice.

Much attention in recent times has gone to the first, with critical questions, particularly in terms of uptake and use of findings for policy explored by Harry Jones of ODI and others but as yet unanswered. Importantly, we need to recognise that the time frames for this type of learning often spans several years while organisations need quicker feedback in order to adapt en route.

This blog concerns the second kind of learning. Management systems and procedures to make organisations more accountable in relation to claimed results need to be joined up with systems that encourage staff/organisations to be more responsible for critically reflecting on what works and what does not and adjusting practices accordingly.

Thematic clusters to be launched in September/October

The Big Push Forward was born from the expressed need from several dozen organisations for joint learning from practice. In September 2010, seven topics were identified as priorities (see Thematic Clusters). The first one is due to be launched by Cathy Shutt on 5 September and it will be on Value for Money (see under ‘Thematic Clusters’). Several others are in the pipeline: on organizational learning and reflective practice, on new ways of reporting and on challenging dominant discourses. These will start later in the atumn. A theme facilitator will invite individuals and organizations to become active participants in the discussions and action research. The facilitator will coordinate collective analyses and document discussions. The thematic discussions will be accessible only for members to enable open discussions and explorations in a safe space.  Insights that emerge will be shared with the wider BPF membership.

All seven themes aim to foster ways of learning that include accountability.  How hard can that be? Well…

What is the challenge?

Practitioners need the space, time and professional support to reflect critically on how and why something is or is not working and to adjust what they are doing accordingly.  This is particularly crucial when working in fragile and highly dynamic contexts or when international aid is seeking to transform structural inequities such as discrimination against women and girls or other normative shifts.  Committed practitioners are keen to improve monitoring for learning (including for upward accountability), and there is much innovation with organisational M&E systems to help them do this.  This means making learning and accountability walk in tandem rather than engage in a tug of war.

This is not easy. You’re usually either good at one or the other – there are not enough resources or time for both, given the high demands for the contractually obligatory upward accountability proof of results.

Demands for proof of results against pre-set targets can distort data as well as expectations (over-inflation to get donor attention, under-inflation to ensure easy wins) and learning is aborted or irregular.  Compliance by itself can inhibit imagination and lead to routine rather than creative responses to development problems.  Innovation is not rewarded. In many countries, development organisations are operating with inefficient dual systems that gobble up time and resources, given the inflexibility of formal monitoring. Up and down the aid chain, managers transmit important messages about accountability with protocols and procedures. These can have perverse consequences if not balanced with an equal interest in grantees reporting about local realities on the ground and how they are trying to respond to these, including what they have learnt from failures.  Reporting against targets, paradoxically, can inhibit the very innovation and critical reflection needed to make the work more effective.

Middle managers need to know that organisational learning is not an option for delivering results and that when designing planning, monitoring and reporting procedures they must check how these will impact on practitioners’ capacities to learn

Learning and accountability can be designed to be mutually supportive

  • Be clear that being accountable requires (inter)active sensemaking activities and that engaging in learning includesdiscovering whether one has delivered as promised but does not stop there.
    • Encourage merging the rhythms of accountability with the learning rhythms of the organization. Support grantees who creatively merge information needs for upward accountability with downward accountability and other organizational learning needs.
    • Invest in dialogues about the nature of intended change process and accommodate different perspectives methodologically and in terms of capacity.
    • Start taking non-linearity and non-predictability more seriously where this is appropriate. Not everything is complex and totally unknown, nor is every thing completely unpredictable. ‘Horses for courses’ must be possible;it is the very basis of solid scientific inquiry.
    • Processes of learning and accountability are essentially about bringing people and their different perspectives together to make sense of information and value performance.  This means engaging with the power dynamics that exist between people, in hierarchies and in the aid sector.

These and many more topics will be discussed by cluster participants. So stay tuned for the launch of thematic clusters – and let us know if you’re interested in getting hands-on with a certain topic.

2 Responses
  1. August 8, 2011

    Interesting. I have become convinced that a necessary condition for children to grow up as full human beings is that they are properly fed and get access to health care. Many poor mothers in Africa cannot provide sufficient food to their children. I have written a few pages on the subject.

  2. Catherine Shutt permalink*
    August 6, 2011

    I really enjoyed a paper recently published by Irene in which (if I remember correctly) she looks at links between accountability and learning in the different quadrants of Snowden’s Cynefin framework. If I understood her correctly she seemed to be making the very obvious point that when operating in complex or chaotic systems the only way we can be accountable is by demonstrating that we are continually assessing change, reflecting and learning about how and why change it is or isn’t happening and adapting as a result.

    Perhaps Irene could elaborate…..I have shared the idea in recent workshops and it seems to resonate.

    Linked, and something we should probably talk about on the VFM site, does the notion of allocative efficiency make sense or have any meaning in unpredictable complex or chaotic systems?

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