Guest blog written by Laura Michelle Delgado Van Demen
A year after the COVID-19 pandemic started, the perception that our team working on the establishment of a Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) system in Sierra Leone, was standing alone in front of a very massive reform had increased. We were very frustrated since each time we were taking a step forward it seemed we were also taking two backwards. Authorisation was not there neither a spirit for reform and collaboration with different agents through this European Union funded project.
I have been working for five years in the field of EU development and external aid and one thing is clear to me: the system, collaboration and approach to building capacities needs to be done differently. It was in 2019 when I heard PDIA for the first time from a very inspiring PFM practitioner when discussing on alternatives and approaches for the projects we were implementing. Thus, building on frustration and trying to find a new way of doing things, I joined the Implementing Public Policy at HKS with the hope of regaining hope again.
In April 2017, we began our engagement with the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI), an intergovernmental organization based in South Africa, to design and launch the Building Public Financial Management Capabilities (BPFMC) Program using the PDIA approach. In this program, CABRI’s member countries could apply for a team of 5-7 members to work on their locally nominated PFM problem for the period of 7-months. The training included online modules, an in-person framing workshop, virtual progress updates, and an experience sharing workshop at the end of the program. Each team was paired with a coach from CABRI who held regular check-ins to motivate and support them.
Teams from Ghana, Liberia, Lesotho, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and The Gambia, participated in the inaugural program from May to December 2017. At the end of the program, the teams made significant progress: they developed a deeper understanding of the root causes of their problems; developed capabilities and confidence; financial reporting rates went up; budgets were prepared faster; and virements and arrears decreased.
In April 2018, we began a second iteration, this time offering the program in both English and French. Teams from the Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Lesotho, Liberia, and Nigeria, participated in the program. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a funder of the program, commissioned an independent evaluation to assess the application of the PDIA approach in the African context.
The evaluation included desk research, baseline and midline surveys of participants, interviews and observations from the framing workshop and experience sharing workshop, field visits to CAR, Lesotho, and Liberia, and interviews and observations from a review seminar, five months after the conclusion of the coaching support from CABRI.
My country suffered from the Ebola crisis six years ago, experienced negative growth rates and is yet to attain pre-Ebola growth rates. It is in the midst of the recovery process that the current Corona pandemic has struck. There is a general scale down in economic activities, rise in employment, and risks of food insecurity in vulnerable households. This is coupled with existing challenges in human capital development and infrastructure. The introduction of movement and social distancing restrictions in a bid to ‘flattening the curve’ has exacerbated already existing multi-dimensional poverty and social protection issues. Despite some financial support from International Finance Institutions, and donations from the private sector, the economic impact of COVID-19 on our import-driven economy, which we have spent the last couple of years struggling to diversify, would be long-lasting.
Yes, there is a lot of data, albeit high-level projections of the economic impact of COVID-19. The forecasts produced with technical support from the IMF, saw original GDP growth projections for 2020 being revised downwards from 4.2% to -2.2%; Balance of payments worsening from $30.2 million to -$301.3 million; and domestic revenue falling by about 15%. Resources are being diverted towards the health response and the Quick Action Economic Response Programme.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that the implementation of the country’s Medium-Term National Development Plan has slowed down. There is a need to re-evaluate current progress and re-strategise our approach to growth and development to help catch up and accelerate growth, especially for the delivery of His Excellency the President’s Human Capital Development Priority Portfolio. It is within this context and aim to contribute to Post-COVID growth that I enrolled on the Leading Economic Growth Course.
One of the first things I learnt from this course is that the challenge of addressing economic growth and making sure it leads to development is not a complicated but complex problem. Like every country, mine comes with its history, experience, governance styles, natural resource endowments, institutions and humans. As humans, we are already complex beings. Bringing all our knowledge, skills, technology, and other production capabilities together are also complex. The interconnections across the ecosystem are numerous, and so are the possible outcomes. Country experiences and positions are continually evolving. Sometimes it is just not easy to determine what would ‘make the monkeys jump’.
International development experts often tell us that they cannot do PDIA because the project processes within their organizations do not allow for flexibility. The truth however, is that all development agencies have some sort of instrument that does allow for experimentation and flexibility. Here’s an example of how a Pay and Performance project in Sierra Leone explicitly used PDIA principles.
Civil service reforms are complex in and of themselves. If you add, a lack of capacity to implement programs, multiple reporting lines, demoralized civil servants, a lack of coordination amongst key agencies, and a low-level of trust, the potential for success of such a reform decreases significantly. Recognizing this, the World Bank team decided to use the key principles of the PDIA framework with support from the Leadership for Results (LforR) program for their Pay and Performance Project in Sierra Leone. The rationale for this was to bring a broad range of stakeholders together and facilitate a process of collective problem and solution identification, as well as to introduce experimentation and adaptability during implementation.
They began with some short-term results-focused Rapid Results Initiatives (RRIs) in Year 0 and Year 1. The pilot was instrumental in building the confidence of the local civil servants by demonstrating that progress was possible in their context and gave them a sense of ownership. In addition, the short feedback loops facilitated rapid experiential learning about what results were actually achieved for both government and the World Bank staff – in PDIA terminology, we call this strategically crawling the design space.
Specifically, they used a two-pronged, learning-by-doing process, which included:
Structured team coaching throughout the implementation process: A locally based rapid results coach who had an in-depth understanding of government and public sector reform was hired to provide support to teams on a daily basis. The coach:
Facilitated problem solving at multiple levels in the system with team-level work,
Helped create action plans by breaking a huge daunting task into smaller easier to digest chunks,
Motivated the teams despite the challenges, and
Created an opportunity for the teams to learn from each other and to see how their work fit within the larger picture.
Facilitated leadership fora for dialogue: One-day strategic leadership convenings between leaders and implementation teams were held at critical points. These retreats served to review progress and learning, problem-solve, facilitate reflection, make strategic decisions, and course-correct where needed. In PDIA terminology, we call this maintaining the authorizing environment.
After 20 months of implementation (February 2014), they had several hard results. More importantly, there was stronger inter- and intra-agency collaboration and increased trust and communication. The teams actually had the capacity to do things themselves. The flexibility at the design stage allowed more politically and technically feasible solutions to emerge.
So, large bureaucracies can do PDIA and it doesn’t take forever. Bottom-line: the mundane matters and cannot be ignored for a project to succeed.
Roberto O. Panzardi and Kay Winning are in the process of publishing a paper with more details on this project. You can read about the preliminary results here.