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Subverting bad policy for the better

By Richard Ward, Aguaconsult

The most recent Global Water Challenge (GWC) webinar hosted at www.sustainablewash.org gave another useful opportunity to highlight the findings of the Qualitative Document Analysis (QDA) policy and practice research that has been disseminating during this (slightly cold) first part of 2013. Adding to the ‘reality content’ of those findings were two great presenters, Mike Kang of Engineers without Boarders Canada and Sanjay Bhatngar of WaterHealth International who gave some very good examples of how they see the life-cycle cost approach (LCCA) and asset management approach in their everyday working lives, with discussion chaired by Catarina Fonseca of WASH Cost.

Two very interesting trends were revealed by the audience polls undertaken during the webinar – that the percentage of participants who claimed to use LCCA and asset management approaches was much higher than the QDA results suggested, averaging over 50% in both instances. This is perhaps an indication of the improvements we may see in the second round of the QDA scheduled for 2014, but it also illustrates another possibility that was brought into focus by a question towards the end of the webinar concerning the monitoring results – where we saw an improvement in practice over policy – an inversion of the typical ‘policy practice gap’. The question was simply, what do you think this means? On an immediate level, it just indicates that we saw more quality references to monitoring (especially for service levels) in practice documents than we did in the policy documents. Saying anything beyond this at this stage is more speculative.

It also points to a far more interesting possibility however – that we are thinking about policy strengths and weaknesses in the wrong way. Perhaps instead we should invert the findings and move beyond an instrumental understanding of policy that places policy first and practice second. From this perspective, a vague or badly defined policy becomes a potential opportunity that allows practitioners to adapt, modify and improve what they do without the ‘permission’ of policy specialists. A strong, well defined policy conversely becomes something we should be wary of, and with it the temptation to stop thinking and step back from the consequences of any action we undertake.

Some policies need to be followed of course, for good reason, and this isn’t a call for arbitrary rule breaking or cynical actions, more an appreciation of what’s possible when a policy is weak. Rather than hold out the hope of policy as being something that has all the answers, how about seeing it as just another form of language that can be used, interpreted and modified in multiple contexts? This seems closer to the reality of development policy in action and, crucially, real life. If policy is free to become just another form of language again, we should certainly not be constricted or bewitched by it at the very least. With the right thinking, practices can change now, especially where policy is weak.

2 comments on “Subverting bad policy for the better

  1. Is the recording on the webinar available anywhere?

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