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More on Change – Systems, Principles and Learning

By Elise Wach, IDS Evaluation and Learning Advisor (reposted from the Impact and Learning Team Blog)I am back to talk about change, following on from my previous postings (Change is hard  and Change is hard but not impossible) on how you change a sector, Here are some reflections from the latest IRC Triple-S learning retreat.

IRC is attempting to change the way water is provided in rural communities by:

(i) changing the way things work at the level of rural communities so that water is available to everyone indefinitely, and

(ii) changing the water sector to enable this to happen.

I think it is easy to get lost in the frameworks and theories that attempt to explain how to achieve these changes.  For example, there are a number of different frameworks proposed for influencing policy and measuring that influence (for example Crewe and Young 2002, Court and Young 2003, Steven 2007, Gladwell 2000, etc.).  These provide useful insights as to what might make a difference, but at the end of the day we need to remember that these are complex and unique systems that we are trying to change: so there is no ‘best practice’!

Danny Burns’ seminar at IDS yesterday on ‘How Change Happens’ helped remind me that while it is not necessarily labelled as such, Triple-S is essentially using a ‘Systemic Action Research’ approach: their larger (systems) view of the water sector and iterative learning processes enable them to recognise and respond to opportunities for change.

In attempting to influence policy, for example, Triple-S is not just looking at written policy documents (although this is one piece of Triple-S work).  But they recognise that policy change results from and is indicated by changes in discourse, perceptions, agendas, networks, political contexts, and institutions.  And that a multitude of stakeholders are involved in those changes, including journalists, NGO workers, researchers, finance ministers, and even people who post on Twitter.   They recognise that certain events (such as a change in government) can greatly accelerate or completely block policy changes. And that the right evidence and information at the right time delivered to the right people could make a difference.  So the Triple-S approach is built on the assumption that changing policy doesn’t entail following a formula but instead recognising and responding to opportunities and trigger points.

At the rural community level, Triple-S is trying to ensure that the rural water sector takes into account a variety of factors in order to ensure that water services are provided to everyone indefinitely.  So this means looking at life-cycle costs, mechanisms for transparency and accountability, possible alternative service providers, accounting for the multiple uses of water, etc. etc.

But does viewing these issues with a systemic lens mean that we become paralysed by complexity?  Danny Burns pointed out yesterday that the key is to focus on action rather than on consensus.  To focus on the actions that different actors can take that can change the system.  Or as Bob Williams explains in his the Ottawa Charter approach (Word), it will be a ‘strategically selected jigsaw of people and organisations doing what they are most effective at’ that will create lasting change, rather than Triple-S trying to change the sector on its own.

Triple-S isn’t trying to get consensus around a specific approach to achieving sustainable rural water supply, but is instead trying to get everyone on board with basic set of principles for sustainable services and providing a range of resources and tools and building capacities (look out for new trainings in the near future) to put those principles in action. They are leveraging existing institutions and structures, and working closely with individuals and organisations to facilitate ownership.

But getting people to wrap their heads around the concept of changing their principles is a big obstacle.  People want tools and approaches that they can go put into action, and while Triple-S is providing a range of these, success starts with viewing rural water supply completely differently: it isn’t ‘the Service Delivery Approach’ but ‘a Service Delivery Approach’.

Another obstacle Triple-S is facing relates to the way in which evidence is perceived.  So there are people who say, ‘this is all fine and good in theory, but is it really possible? Can we really achieve both sustainability and scale? Where is the evidence?’  Evidence is a strong word.  Today, it usually refers to a call for a ‘rigorous’ approach like a randomised control trial.  But if you want to find out if services are provided forever, then how long do you have to wait for the RCT results?  And here is where I cannot resist but refer to the brilliant example of the limitations of RCTs – would you doubt that a parachute would make jumping out of a plane safer just because an RCT has not proven it?  I think this highlights the need for the development community to reflect on what we consider to be evidence.

But I don’t think that these obstacles are insurmountable, especially given that Triple-S’ approach enables it to recognise and respond to opportunities and challenges while remaining focused.  One of the Triple-S pillars is for the rest of the rural water sector to have ‘a strong learning and adaptive capacity’.  I see this as pre-requisite for success in the other two pillars, and in the rural water sector in general.  But achieving this is….well, complex.

4 comments on “More on Change – Systems, Principles and Learning

  1. Nice post Elise, but can you give any more detail or examples on what types of evidence decision-makers are really asking for? In my mind, if someone accepts that the idea of a service delivery approach being necessary is a plausible hypothesis for consideration in the first place, they wouldn’t also ask for an RCT to prove it because (as you say) it’s completely the wrong tool. You can’t randomise some countries into an SDA and some into a project-based approach and wait a few years. If someone does want an RCT as evidence of something, to me that implies that they are looking for something at a different scale to a service delivery approach, and does not necessarily relate to whether they agree that an SDA is needed or not. I guess you’re just using the RCTs as an extreme example to make the point, but I’d be interested to be pointed towards more representative examples of actual discussions – thanks!

  2. Dear Stephen,
    Many thanks for your comment. I think the RCT point highlights a few issues here:

    1. Again, most people don’t understand that when we talk about a ‘Service Delivery Approach’, we’re talking about a different way of viewing and acting on rural water issues, rather than a formulaic ‘approach’. And in typing this out, I wonder if perhaps the word ‘approach’ is part of the reason we get tripped up on this.

    2. Many people don’t really understand how RCTs work and what their limitations are. After so many failures, the development community (including donors and tax payers) understandably wants to know what works and what doesn’t work. And RCTs have been espoused as the ‘gold standard’ for doing so. I think more needs to be done to increase our understanding of RCTs in order to change this line of thought.
    So, to directly answer your question, I don’t think that decision-makers really know what kind of evidence they want. They just want some kind of reassurance that we’re not going down the wrong track again.

    Where does that leave us? There are a few things we can do:

    – We can definitely show that the opposite of a Service Delivery Approach doesn’t work. That’s easy. But at the same time, that’s also something that most people know already.

    – We can provide information about what a Service Delivery Approach looks like in terms of money. Doing things differently is going to entail different costs and different timings of costs. Something that became apparent during consultations with key stakeholders in the sector is that many people don’t really know what it really looks like to plan for and cover life-cycle costs. A lot of information is available on this (see WASHCost), so one of the next challenges for Triple-S (and others in the water sector) is making this information known.

  3. Thanks Elise, much appreciated. Really interesting to hear the basic challenge of getting across ‘what is an SDA?’ and ‘what is an RCT?’. My thinking was similar to your last point – it needs a discussion about the money, and what service you get for that money.
    Regarding both these, does comparing water to health or education help in discussions with decision-makers? Both of these seem to be sectors i) where an SDA is more established and acknowledged and ii) that illustrate that ‘evidence’ in the form of an RCT is clearly one possible small part of a wider SDA. The classic RCT examples of deworming for getting kids in school and giving bags of lentils to encourage vaccinations come to mind. Do these serve as a good analogy for the water sector? Both have clear potential use as ways of approaching particular problems but neither say much about wider service delivery.

  4. […] More on change—systems, principles, and learning by Elise Wach More27.   The water sector’s Orpheus complex—and what it costs by Stef Smits […]

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