Jan 11, 2018

Adaptive Programming: some lessons from SAVI, Nigeria

In October, we at ODI were very pleased to be invited to share learning from the State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) at a Global Delivery Initiative workshop in Ghana.

SAVI was a DFID-funded programme which, from 2008-16, supported citizens’ engagement in state-level governance in Nigeria. Learning by doing and working in an adaptive manner were central to how the programme worked.  This approach built on learning from predecessor programmes in Nigeria, and is itself now informing “Engaged Citizens,” the SAVI successor programme, which is part of the larger governance reform programme, Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL), which commenced in 2016.  

It is well documented that adaptive programming is about working in ways that put learning at the centre, and that are politically smart and locally led. Our experience is that designing, managing and implementing a programme to work in this way is time consuming and challenging.  It involves swimming against the tide of conventional practice in many ways, and is itself a continuous exercise in problem driven iterative adaptation!

Some of the key lessons and approaches from SAVI that are informing our current programme are:

Programme management needs to actively champion adaptation.  Working in locally led, politically smart, adaptive ways is about far more than programme design. Success is fundamentally dependent on the extent to which programme management systems, and the broader political economy and culture of donor organisations and suppliers, enable – or disable – this way of working. In a conventional programme, where plans, targets, budgets and personnel inputs are planned and agreed up front, the programme management role is about ensuring effective delivery - on time, within budget and according to agreed milestones. In an adaptive programme, if the programme management continues to drive the programme on the basis of pre-set and top-down targets, the programme loses its ability to be nimble and responsive, and adaptive programming is simply not possible. In SAVI, the programme management team worked with DFID to shape systems for monitoring, financial management and staff management in ways which would support and enable adaptive programme delivery, whilst also meeting donor accountability requirements.

Flexibility needs to be built into the programme design. Ideally, design, procurement and contracting processes should enable the programme to be adaptive from the outset.  In SAVI, from the start of the programme, management staff, in conjunction with DFID and external reviewers, played a central role in shaping the programme design – defining interventions, choosing sensible indicators and means of measurement, and building flexibility into milestones and targets. By the end of the programme, the Results Framework was in its 14th official iteration. An Outcome Harvesting approach allowed targets and milestones for the aggregate numbers of anticipated results to be set, giving DFID confidence that real things would happen, without pinning down in advance exactly what they would be or where.  

Get the right people. Politically smart, locally led, adaptive programming is often less about the provision of expertise, than about facilitation, teamwork, and mutual problem solving. This has implications for staff recruitment and support. In SAVI, decision-making on many aspects of the programme was decentralised to State Teams, informed by an overall Theory of Change which applied across the programme. The aim was for State Teams to play a behind-the-scenes facilitation role supporting locally-led reform processes. As the programme progressed, we found that the conventional recruitment processes we had in place, based on CVs and technical expertise, were not enabling us to identify and recruit staff willing, able, and temperamentally suited to working in this way.  Consequently, mid-way through the programme, we changed our approach to staff recruitment and to annual performance appraisal to focus on core values and associated behaviours, which themselves were agreed in a participatory way with all SAVI staff. We invested throughout the programme in building the capacity of State Teams to play their role effectively, providing mentoring and technical support, and ensuring regular opportunities for reflection and learning.

Analyse the changing context and use this information to inform planning. In any adaptive programme, mechanisms need to be put in place to analyse the context and support staff and partners to respond appropriately to changing opportunities, momentum and constraints. In SAVI, we aimed to make this kind of “thinking and working politically” central to the planning and decision making of State staff and partners. Rather than contract political scientists to conduct studies of the political and economic context, we supported staff and partners to conduct their own political economy analysis, mentored by political scientists. State staff and partners analysed the power relations that shaped change in their state, and in relation to the problems they were trying to address, regularly updated this knowledge formally and informally, and used it to inform their planning and learning.

Invest in time, space, skills and systems for staff and partners to learn and adapt. Learning lessons as the programme progresses and adapting accordingly is core to adaptive programming. We created and invested in space for structured reflection and learning – weekly or monthly in relation to some aspects of the programme, quarterly and annually on others. This helped staff and partners to stand back from their day to day work, consider the bigger picture, and think creatively. We designed all our monitoring tools to serve a dual function – delivering accountability to DFID at the same time as facilitating internal learning.  We also aimed to create an enabling culture within the programme where honest, open and constructive reflection was possible and valued, in order to enable staff and partners to admit to and learn from failures as well as from successes.

Develop a very good working relationship with your donor! Adaptive programming is uncertain and risky for all concerned - and many incentives work against it. Our experience was that good communications and close collaboration with the donor, informed by a shared commitment to adaptive programming, was essential. We worked with lead advisers in DFID to read the internal politics and changing dynamics of donor support in Nigeria and globally, and, guided by this knowledge, we used strategic communications to protect and where possible expand the space for adaptive programming.

These lessons and more are elaborated in a paper written jointly by SAVI and the LASER programme  “Adaptive programming in practice: shared lessons from the DFID funded LASER and SAVI programmes”  - as well as in a series of Approach Papers on the SAVI website.

Our practice continues to evolve in our new programme, and we continually face new challenges. We will share learning from Engaged Citizens, and PERL more broadly, as it evolves, and look forward to benefitting from the experience of others.

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