Last August, I flew to Bulawayo to the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) Regional Practitioners’ Learning Meeting: “Defining our Social Accountability world”. I was excited, jet-lagged, trying to wrap my head around the way forward for a tough mission. The challenge was a big one: to work with a community of social accountability practitioners to develop a process to deepen and improve the articulation of their monitoring, evaluation, and learning with their overall strategies and social accountability practices. The wordy challenge was on paper but now, as I met a large diverse group of colleagues, it was about to get real.
We , the “critical friends”
Gertrude, Elsie and I had some ideas informed by our experience and field good practice of possible ways to experiment forward. A linchpin of this plan was Elsie’s and mine ability to become this group’s critical friends. Being a “critical friend” means that we are trying to understand what the context of multiple social accountability efforts is like, and build trust with the civil society groups implementing those efforts so that we can ask provocative questions, provide data and a new perspective and critiques on their work, focusing on improving it. We are critical because what we want is for social accountability efforts to reach their full potential. So, it essentially means pulling off nearness and distance at the same time. This approach has paid off in other projects on social accountability (see here). Could we pull it off?
We are just getting on the roller coaster
Back to the meeting in Bulawayo: We knew our colleagues there would put our initial ideas, including the feasibility of the “critical friend” role, to the test. It was Wednesday and the roller coaster of ideas and challenges was about to begin.
- Just listen. For a day and a half I did not present any proposal. I listened; I tried to connect with this new context with its own individual, organizational, and country realities. Every once in a while I was asked to help organize ideas or just decided to point to tensions, or ask for clarifications. I opened myself to others’ thoughts about the “joint learning problem” (or lack of thereof). Gertrude, Elsie and I had taken a risk there. Would others agree with our diagnostic? Would the parameters of our plan make any sense to the group? For now, we were just easing into the ride. If our proposition had any shot at being implemented and becoming relevant for the partnership others had to willingly get on the roller coaster with us. It needed to become the shared ride of many people and organizations across Southern Africa, rather than a conversation of three, on paper.
- An afternoon and the first “aha!” moment. By Thursday afternoon, I had no certainty that we would have a real shot at a regional learning pilot, which was our goal. I heard that there had been other attempts already, so we needed to convince people of giving it a new try. I suspected that much about the challenges and the sources of frustration (or not) remained unsaid. That is not surprising: so much of the insight about the way things work in social accountability is tacit (check out what colleagues say here).
- Boom! A shocking moment. “Out of the blue” one of the participants shocked everyone with a particular experience. There was silence and astonishment in the room. At the same time, the vulnerabilities associated with opening yourself up to an honest reflection started to surface. A true steep free fall. Maybe this new collective learning experiment had a chance. (Want to know what that experience was about? Go to Elsie’s blog on this).
- Coffee break and 15 minutes to come up with a game plan. After the shock, people were expecting the next steps. So, how could we make the best of this chance – a chance that might as well be unique? Should I try to sell the solution I had imagined weeks ago, miles away from Bulawayo? We needed to regroup: Gertrude and I took a coffee break to come up with a game plan.
- Inviting others to get in the roller coaster with us. We opted for presenting an external diagnostic of what I had heard until then. I also started outlining an alternative for a regional learning pilot we could develop together with them. Like many others, we had to put the local and the external in dialogue from the start (why? – check out the video about the World Bank!). I did not want to use a template or “model,” we had to customize the approach to the need and the context. But people want examples so I suggested considering how we could learn and then tailor a project I had been working on to track and analyze strategic and tactical changes in social accountability efforts in Brazil. Examples here and here.
- Putting the conversation in context: Examples were just one of the things asked for. Learning and adaptation may be a trend in social accountability and development, but that was not enough in Bulawayo. Organizations there face high barriers to embrace the ideas that drive the notion of adaptive learning. Learning budgets are often limited and there are other obstacles present that require for us to change how we go about doing social accountability. Not unlike projects in the past, I came across risk aversion and vulnerability in conversations with civil society colleagues beyond this group. Is it ever safe to open up honestly about the challenges of accountability work? Many organizations have been built to strive in the status quo and respond accordingly (interested in civil society challenges with adaptive learning opportunities? Check out here and here). It was a tough Q&A in Bulawayo – and that was a promising sign! Reflection and adaptation can look difficult at times.
- Have we started to pull it off despite it all? By the end of the week, we had accomplished a collective milestone. We had been tasked by the group with putting the vision in a piece of paper. The document would spell out to the group what a pilot would look like, address their many concerns, and help them explain the plan to their colleagues and bosses back at home. Things were starting to move forward, and the learning clock was already ticking. As much of a roller coaster as this first meeting had been for me, I couldn’t wait for the next step to begin!