Almost Bulawayo

Making jokes about being asked to leave Zimbabwe back in August helped to take the sting out of the fact that I missed an important meeting. Over the course of a couple of snatched moments after dinner and lunch I had a chance to talk to Florencia Guerzovich about the project. The project that Gertrude Mugizi had introduced to me a few weeks before in broad terms is starting to take shape. Especially after getting a chance to listen to practitioners talk about their challenges and experiences with the perpetually tricky business of documenting learning.

This sounds familiar from other documentation projects I have experienced: an entity (an organization, an individual) has done something over a period of time. There is a beginning, a middle, challenges and triumphs along the way. We need to tell our stories for our activities and choices to make sense. But this Pilot- assisting in the examination of the evolution of a social accountability methodology through its practice in a variety of countries and organizations- is not like anything I have ever seen before…

We are talking about Monitoring and Evaluation and Learning. There will be logframes and strategy documents and piles of information to sift through. There will be indicators and acronyms and references to this methodology versus that methodology- a challenging area for me. Numbers are not my natural habitat! There will be so much complexity- how will something come out of this massive pile of information? Getting an opportunity to learn how that could be done is exciting.

The PSAM has engaged in various methods to document its activities, outcomes, evolution over time. Of particular interest to me in this project is using a public sphere to discuss the complex business of learning: the PSAM’s online community of practice- COPSAM- is a perfect place to experiment with that. If we journal the processes and thoughts and experiences of this Pilot, we hope to invite broader dialogue with  social accountability community, most especially the PSAM community itself.

So in those few rushed meetings in Bulawayo amazingly enough some of the potential of the project happened over a few very intensive conversations and a few initial ideas. The Pilot is ambitious and though the destination is clear, plotting the way towards it will be where the , the dynamic part. Sadly I was back to Dar es Salaam prematurely, which was an excellent lesson for me with regards to the importance of context. Learning indeed.

Elsie Eyakuze

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!

Learning About Social Accountability Is Like Jumping On a Rollercoaster

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.

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  • 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!

Interested in more on adaptive learning? Join this google group. To engage the PSAM community check join COPSAM. And stayed tuned for more, we are only getting started!

Florencia Guerzovich