The Road to Learning

Before the decision to Pilot a framework for learning about the adaptation and application of the PSAM approach on social accountability by RLP’s partners in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in August this year, it is important to explain how it all began. Through this post, I will take you through the reason why RLP decided to embark on this learning journey with our partners.

– Gertrude Mugizi, Regional Learning Programme Manager at PSAM.

Learning, in my experience, has been a highly debated, controversial, and sometimes polarizing term. I used to think that since this is the one thing we are born knowing how to do, understanding what it means and why it is important would be a no-brainer …until I actually tried!

When I first inherited the opportunity to head what was then PSAM’s Training Programme in 2010, I was very excited about the opportunity. Having worked in the field of accountability for a few years at the time and having engaged with the PSAM (from the inside and the outside) for about 2 years, I felt that I was able to bring a unique perspective of having been both an implementer within the Programme and a client (for want of a better word) of its services.

One of the first things I did was to propose a change to the Programme’s name from ‘Training Programme’ to ‘Learning Programme’. Having come from ‘the other side’, I did not see the primary value of the Programme as training demand side actors to apply a set of tools. Budget training courses were a dime a dozen and in my experience, what we offered in that regard was similar to some of the other courses I had come across. What this programme did offer that was different from the many budget training courses I had engaged with was an opportunity to change the common perspective on how and why demand side actors understand and engage government on public service management issues.

In applying the PSAM approach, I had at a very basic level begun to understand how the system of government works and why this empowers us to engage government from a systemic understanding of the role of government in the realization of rights. I realized as well that PSAM itself was but one of many travelers on the journey. We needed the proactive contribution of our regional partners just as much as they needed ours.

After much discussion and debate within the Programme, within the organization, and with other social accountability practitioners in the region, we finally agreed that the core value that the Programme adds to the broader social accountability community in Southern Africa was not primarily training; it was the opportunity to learn together about how we can raise the bar in the conversation that we, the African people, have with our governments.

We proceeded to redesign what is now the PSAM’s Regional Learning Programme into one that endeavours to create and sustain a regional community of practitioners committed to learning about how social accountability happens in practice, and how this practice can be improved for the benefit of all citizens in the region.

In my seven years at PSAM, working with a range of accountability stakeholders who do amazing work, a number of challenges keep coming up from both conversation and observation:

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  1. Social accountability is about the conversation that the range of social accountability actors have with each other about what citizens expect from government and how government lives up to this expectation. In this conversation, people who would not normally be inclined to interact, learn how to talk to each other in a way that gets their expectations met. Through the process of interacting, all social accountability stakeholders learn. This learning should help each actor participate better in the conversation next time around. Unfortunately this is not always what happens. We would like to understand why.

  2. While we all agree that learning happens all the time, we sometimes find it difficult to share what we are learning in ways that contribute substantively to the learning of others.

  3. The challenge of retaining knowledge and expertise in this sector is very real. We struggle create self-sustaining work spaces so that when someone leaves, those who remain do not go back to re-learning what has already been learnt at the individual level.

  4. When individuals or organisations enter the sector, only the very lucky ones obtain the type of mentoring that enables them to learn efficiently and effectively from the hindsight of others.

  5. Many of us find it hard to talk openly and honestly about our failures in public, even when we know that failure is often the best teacher.

When our regional community of practice met for the first time in Dodoma, Tanzania in August 2015, a decision was made that we would proactively look for a way to better understand some of these challenges and how to address them collectively. It was agreed that we would look for someone more knowledgeable than ourselves to guide us through this process, and PSAM was entrusted with this daunting task. It was here that our Learning Pilot was originally conceived.

By the time we had thought through what this pilot could look like, gathered the necessary resources for the first year of our experiment and found an expert willing to accompany us on this journey, a year had passed. In August 2016, the community met again in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. We were certain that we wanted to learn how to learn better from our many diverse forms of social accountability practice but were still a bit unsure as to whether we were ready to endure the pain that would lead to the gain. We still had many questions, but we decide to trust the process- so here we are!