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Challenges in Practice – Thoughts on ‘Lessons Learned’ (Part 1)

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first of two by Alex Ademokun, who manages the Evidence-Informed Policy Making programme at INASP.]

INASP has recently started a programme of work in partnership with four other organisations to build capacity for research uptake in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.  The consortium called VakaYiko, meaning to ‘build capacity’ in Shona (from Southern Africa) and Dagbani, (from Northern Ghana) is composed of INASP, GINKS, HSRC, ODI and ZEIPNET.

In Ghana, we are working with the Civil Service Training Centre (CSTC) to develop a course in Skills for Evidence Informed Policy Making.  In South Africa the consortium is working with key departments to systematise the sourcing and use of evidence and in Zimbabwe the consortium is working with key departments to develop a professional development course for Civil Servants and support champions in key departments.

As the consortium gears up to start the programme, I read the recent Politics & Ideas paper; lessons learned promoting links between researchers and policy makers, with great interest.  Meeting partners to make plans and explore the context within which this programme operates, I found myself with the opportunity to reflect on what the lessons from the paper mean for us and others interested in applying them in practice.  The paper discusses lessons across multiple areas but I am thinking specifically about the lessons around capacity building which I will discuss in this post.

The lessons discussed below are the ones I have had chance to consider at this early stage of the programme.  I am sure as we make progress I will revisit the ones I have left out.

Decide on the right level of intervention and stick to it – This is simply to reiterate a point well made in the paper that capacity can be built at different levels – individual, organisational and institutional/environmental.  This distinction is sometimes artificial and there is room for overlap, however it is very important to be aware of where the programme aims to support capacity.  In VakaYiko we work at the three levels (broadly one each in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe).  However in meetings with Senior Civil Servants and donors during country visits a common issue that comes up is the existence of capacity gaps at all levels.  It is tempting to try to respond to every issue – an approach that will fail for many reasons including capacity (ours), politics (local) and resources (including time and expertise).  The challenge then is to resist the temptation to try to tackle everything while being fully aware of the nature of issues at all levels.  This is easier said than done.  In VakaYiko we will constantly reflect on our work and on that of others to ensure we are aware of how changes around us impact on what we do.

A related point is that organisations are of course made up of individuals.  As such an explicit objective of the programme is to identify key individuals to act as champions.  But it goes beyond just their identification.  VakaYiko partners will provide mentoring support so that those individuals can produce changes not just in their own behaviours but in their working environments.

Staff retention and the risk of individuals with new skills moving on are challenges to this approach.  We are always interested in hearing from others who have successfully cascaded capacity at individual level to the organisation.

Needs assessment – Needs assessments are often but not always necessary. However, we seem to have reached a point where they are sometimes carried out simply to tick a box.  It is incredibly important, however, if you must do a needs assessment, to do it right.  There are many challenges with any needs assessment not least the honesty and curiosity with which the assessment is designed and carried out – are you really trying to figure out what is needed or trying to document evidence for the solutions you feel are needed?

It is also important to determine who or what needs to be assessed – is it the individual, the organisation or some combination of both?  The long, slow approach to a thorough needs assessment as described in the paper may not always lend itself to project time frames so being clear about who or what you need to assess is of the essence.

For both individuals and organisations there is then the issue of how you raise awareness of skills gaps in a way that encourages behaviour change as opposed to suggesting inadequacy.

These are not trivial challenges.  In VakaYiko we will necessarily tackle these things differently in each country depending on the activities we are carrying out.  However needs assessments will reflect where we work and a clear understanding of who/what needs to be assessed.  In South Africa for example, the first step is to identify exactly how evidence is currently being used in key departments as opposed to trying to prove it isn’t. We will then discuss how the process for sourcing and using evidence can be improved from the user’s point of view to help inform the programme design.

In my next post I will touch on a couple of other points – selection of participants and demand for capacity building support.