Blog | October 11, 2016 | Fletcher Tembo

As practitioners and researchers, it is our learning that can help us to achieve the changes that are needed to take us towards more sustainable, powerful, fulfilling and democratic systems. This means reflecting on our assumptions, asking difficult questions and seeking answers from both research and practice.

At the end of a learning event convened by Making All Voices Count in Manila in 2016, which asked about the role of technology in transforming governance, I reflected on the importance of peer learning. I wrote that we should be actively seeking to learn from other actors about their practice in accountable governance, and actively sharing our reflections. This sharing of insights is an important stepping stone to incrementally building our understandings about what works, under what circumstances – helping us improve initiatives aimed at transforming governance.

In the past two weeks, I had a chance to do just this when I visited Making All Voices Count projects in Philippines and Indonesia. This blog shares three layers of my own learning from these visits, and my reflective insights on improving our work and generating lessons for others.

Skills for surfing, not ice-skating

The first layer of learning was the importance of giving space to an honest and serious reading of the contextual dynamics of a project, and examining our assumptions of what works based on this reading.

Under the previous government in the Philippines, projects on the Open Government Partnership and those on bottom-up budgeting were ticking all the boxes of success with much ease. But with the election of new regime in May 2016, constraints to these activities are clear, and organisations are wondering how to sustain the momentum of success generated during the previous regime. Were the possibilities for institutionalising good practice, and scaling up and out, based on assumptions about the political context, which have now changed?

In part, changes like these suggest that organisations may need to start learning scenario planning, so that they can anticipate regime changes and plug them into their theories of change, rather than basing their theories of change only on what has gone before and is happening now.

But it also suggests that new skills must be learned. As a prominent social accountability researcher and practitioner put it, "practitioners must now learn skills for surfing, not ice skating." When surfing, the waves are always changing, and you have to cope with new directions, sizes and speeds all the time – on the same day, or across different weeks and seasons. When ice skating, the surface remains the same, day after day, and you improve your skills there; if you change the surface, it is entirely based on your decision. The surfer does not have the luxury of deciding.

Spaces for communicating between silos

The second layer of learning is about the tension between “what makes a good project” and “joining the dots in the accountability ecosystem.”

Projects by their nature are often boundaried by their 'SMART’ness  – the need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound – which funders and traditional project designers use to rate what makes good projects. The unintended effect of this focus is that implementers produce and work 'silo' projects – far from how life works in real-life governance situations. As Brendan Halloran reminds us, it is only by recognising that accountability systems are complex and interlinked that will help us envision strategies for engagement around the challenges we seek to overcome, and the governance relationships we seek to improve.

In Indonesia, we convened a meeting of Practitioner Learning Grant researchers, who are carrying out applied and adaptive research to reflect on project experiences of implementing tech for accountable governance. This event showed us yet again how bringing researchers and practitioners together to reflect on their work helped all of us in the room start 'dot-joining' across themes and methodologies – beyond the SMART boundaries. This in turn led us to towards a more sophisticated analysis of the country’s accountability ecosystem, ultimately feeding into better outcomes for other Making All Voices Count innovation and scaling grants that form part of the same ecosystem.


Joining the dots across research themes and methodologies – Making All Voices Count team members with practitioner researchers from the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance, the Bandung Institute of Governance Studies and Pattiro.

Such a reflection – about the value of bringing people together to share their experiences, and the power of what is learned together for shaping subsequent change – is not new. But somehow it always comes as an 'unintended or additional outcome' of a SMART project, and not at the core of what makes success.

More ingrained, less random? 

The third layer of learning concerns how we make the best of new insights picked up from our encounters with other actors in the immediate environment of projects and programmes. For me on this trip, these encounters – both scheduled and unscheduled – were with government officials, donor representatives, the media, the Hivos Regional Office staff, and the former colleagues from the Overseas Development Institute that I met for coffee just outside the Grand Kemang Hotel before leaving for Nairobi.


Meeting government officers from the Information and Communication Agency of Bojonegoro Regency Njuwet village, where the Game My Village project is being implemented by Sinergantara and the Bojonegoro Institute

These encounters can be an important space for learning. One example is my conversation with David Hoffman – Director of the Office of Democracy, Rights and Governance in Indonesia – who shared a useful insight on how to combine local adaptive learning on accountability with taking advantage of government-wide standards to enforce performance disciplines could improve delivery of results.

In the short periods of time we interact with them, external actors can make such an impact on us in terms of learning. How can we best make engaging with them a practice that is engrained and not random – while also recognising that giving space to random learning is important in its own right? This, too, is not a new question in development practice, and as it is often picked up by stakeholder analysis tools and practices. But the challenge perhaps lies in creating a learning culture in which creating space and time to record and reflect on insights – even when drinking coffee with old friends – becomes second nature.

Carrying the learning agenda forward

Learning is central to Making All Voices Count. My layers of learning from this one trip form a tiny part of many streams of reflection that are taking place in many different spaces of the programme, the projects it funds, and the processes of governance it interacts with. Our challenge is to capture and harness the diverse knowledge that it generates to create change in governance, while also evaluating programme effectiveness and ensuring that working practices constantly evolve to improve it.

To help with his challenge, we’ve just published Learning for change in accountable governance programming, a review of learning in Making All Voices Count. It succinctly unpacks various cuts and angles of what it means to engage in learning in an accountable governance programme. It starts with a learning dictionary, defining different types of learning – including contextual, adaptive, evidence-based and experiential – and other key terms like critical, knowledge, data and reflective practice. It also provides four tools for learning, intended to support learners in accountable governance initiatives. It makes a worthwhile read for practitioners and researchers alike.




About the author

Fletcher Tembo is Director of Making All Voices Count.