Reflections on a month of adaptive programming, politics, and learning

Exploring the recurring challenges and new opportunities for implementing public sector reforms


There are no solutions to complex adaptive issues, only responses

It has been a busy month for our Public Sector Governance team. We launched our work on policy execution, attended a seminar exploring themes on adaptive management for public sector reform, and were part of the Blavatnik School of Government’s conference on system thinking for public sector reform capturing the challenge of change in the public sector. In addition, we joined the Asia Foundation in their Practitioners' Forum on Adaptive Programming and Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning.

These events brought together a group of engaging individuals working on these issues across the world. Strikingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve identified a number of common themes, as well as a few independent ones.

Recurring challenges 

Being adaptive is hard. Changing and adapting is not easy, and successfully managing a process of change takes skill, thought, and time. While the Asia Foundation’s work in the Philippines has been the flag bearer for how to manage adaptation, they still find it difficult. The development community is becoming increasingly alert to this challenge and more knowledgeable in how to use tools for adaptation. Even with this knowledge, implementing these concepts is hard – as we are constantly reminded in our work.

People matter. How we build and think about teams really matters for the success of programmes. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) is an exceptional concept that requires people to make it work. In one of the above events, we learnt that the strategy testing approach requires a relentless pursuit of why, something that is only possible with a committed and determined team. Understanding how to build teams and becoming better at team formation deserves much more thought and attention than we give it – both in project design and project implementation.

Soft skills are vital. The ability to manage political processes, facilitate discussions, and bring people together are among the most important skills for the success of adaptive, flexible, and politically aware programmes. Whether it’s an evaluation that understands the political context in which the evaluation is undertaken or the ability of an ‘insider’ to help a programme flex to the constraints of their environment, understanding is critical to success at the beginning of the programme, and for ensuring sustainability.

MLE not MEL. That is: monitoring, learning, and evaluation, not monitoring, evaluation, and learning. The stages are the same, but the order matters. Tracking progress, and learning from it quickly, is key to success. Learning should be constant throughout a programme, while evaluation can come at the end and in a formal sequenced manner.

Opportunities for improvement

Inevitably, there were differences of opinion within and between the events. Monitoring and evaluation experts have a very different view than policy practitioners; academics are likely to think differently from consultants, and so forth. Two that stood out were:

Are we measuring our performance as an implementer, or the performance of what we deliver? What we measure is crucial: are we focusing on the implementer or the programme? This question seems particularly pertinent to adaptive programmes that want to be politically aware. Robust theories of change help to address this, but equally important are the selected measures and the way evidence is collected. Our goal should be to measure the tangible changes that result from these programmes, but too often we focus on the performance of the implementer. The incentives created by what we measure and how we measure it are as important as our focus on the outcome.

Tangible results or policy change? The launch of our policy execution hub shone a spotlight on our focus as an international community, especially when it comes to working with governments in low- and middle-income countries to improve service delivery. Does our work only target policy adoption by government (for example, the passage of climate change legislation) or do we focus our efforts on the translation of policy into tangible actions that citizens benefit from? Across each event there were amazing examples of changes in policy that had a result, but also equally good examples of changes in policy that did not have a result – due to a lack of implementation. Understanding this latter point remains something of a lacuna in the development sector and it is a challenge to all of us to understand this better.

Get in touch with Ben French and OPM’s Public Sector Governance team. Ben is based in our Oxford office where he leads our global Public Sector Governance team.

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