Learning and adaptation depend on relationships (report from TA LEARN, part 3)

I got to spend a few days last week at the the third TA LEARN workshop, hosted by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). Around 70 practitioners, researchers, funders, and the occasional consultant gathered to assess and advance the state of practice on transparency, accountability, open governance, and related issues. Here’s the third in a series of three takeaways.

In the two previous posts, I wrote about how learning is adaptation and learning must be user-owned. As obvious as the second point may be, it’s often undermined by power and funding structures in our sector. “Learning” is often oriented toward the extraction of knowledge for use elsewhere, and practitioners only see it reflected back to them through future RFPs, rather than being able to generate, own, and act upon it themselves.

Righting the balance depends a lot on how the various actors work together, which brings me to the final point.

Takeaway #3: Learning and adaptation depend on relationships.

Not data. Not the brilliance of the practitioner. Not a lack of funder bureaucracy. Rather, the personal relationships among the various partners are the critical enablers of learning and adaptation. Those relationships shape the open sharing needed to gather insights, the joint interpretation needed to decide on changes in direction, and the collaboration needed to put that new direction into action.

The funder-implementer relationship is the most noticeable and the most controversial. Although that relationship is shaped by formal processes of grant applications and reporting, those merely set the guidelines and constraints. In example after example shared during the TA LEARN workshop, the personal relationships between the individuals at various organizations seemed to be more important than the formal elements.

This echoed a theme from the various conversations on “doing development differently” and “adaptive management”: savvy  coalitions can work adaptively even within projects funded by bureaucratic institutions like the World Bank and USAID. Trust and communication among the actors can create the willingness to massage institutional barriers and navigate constraints.

Think about it this way: Adaptation often means changing the project’s results framework, timeline, budget, and more. That requires the funder’s program officer to overcome some amount of bureaucratic inertia. Is the program officer more likely to do that for: project A, whose leadership she knows personally, has met on several occasions, and has chatted casually with over coffee outside the confines of official meetings; or project B, which has no tangible meaning to her beyond a quarterly report in her inbox? All other things being equal, human psychology suggests A.

Fortunately, there are also policy shifts that can loosen those constraints more generally, making it easier for more projects to fall into category A. Earlier this year, Jenny Ross of INTRAC (with support from TAI and the Hewlett Foundation) did some great research on how grantmaking practice supports or hinders grantee learning, highlighting challenges of grant timelines, project silos, inflexible reporting, and lack of prioritization.

Of course, the funder-implementer relationship is not the only one that matters. The TA LEARN conversations also turned to the differing roles played by NGOs, community-based organizations, grassroots activists, and social movements. The personal relationships involved there matter greatly as well, especially as the various individuals find ways to work together over time.


Closing thoughts on TA LEARN

We ended the third day with some discussion of TA LEARN’s future trajectory. In line with the above, I think those relationships built last week (and in the previous workshops) may be the greatest value-add of this space to improving the sector’s practices. Transparency and accountability actors can only improve if we adapt, can only adapt if we learn, and can only learn if we know one another.

Looking beyond our little sub-sector, I think the transparency and accountability community may be ahead of the curve in some ways. Compared to the rest of the development sector, I’d argue that this particular corner better understands adapting programs, navigating complexity, and tolerating ambiguity—simply because the nature of this work leaves it no other choice.

For more reactions to TA LEARN: