Helen Frankenthaler, Riverhead

Working politically in practice: lessons from an innovative programme in Nigeria

Written with Alina Rocha Menocal

First published by the Overseas Development Institute here

Building on two decades of UK Government investment in Nigeria and lessons learned, the Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL) is an innovative programme that seeks to bring together governments and citizen groups to work collectively to address governance challenges associated with the delivery of basic services, at the Federal, State, and District levels. PERL was explicitly designed as a politically smart and adaptive — or Thinking and Working Politically(TWP) — programme, with learning formally embedded at its core.

So what does TWP entail?

TWP is not a “best practice” magic bullet with ready-made answers. Instead, it embraces a “better fit” mindset, offering an approach, or a compass, to help navigate politically complex landscapes and prospects for reform.

Thus, TWP is intended to encourage individual staff and teams to purposefully reflect on how and why change happens, test assumptions on a regular basis, and design and implement interventions accordingly. The knowledge and understanding that stakeholders acquire through learning (including insights from political economy analysis, or PEA, and reflection sessions, among others) then enables them to adjust and adapt their work in response to contextual realities on the ground as needed.

Over the past two decades, international development actors have made considerable progress on the thinking part of TWP. Yet working differently has remained more challenging.

This makes the PERL experience particularly instructive.

Many signs are encouraging. One of PERL’s most significant assets, for instance, is that it builds on a long history of engagement and accumulated knowledge, with staff involved in predecessor programmes like the State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) and the State Partnership for Accountability, Responsiveness, and Capability (SPARC) across time and space. This has proven invaluable in strengthening relationships and fostering trust both within PERL and with other relevant stakeholders, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), as well as Nigerian partners on the ground. Throughout its lifespan, PERL has also made conscious efforts to use PEA to identify issues that are salient in the local context and aligned with internal drivers for reform. Building on this, PERL has often facilitated meaningful spaces of collaboration between state and civil society actors, notably around budget transparency and budget allocations to health and education.

Yet, embracing TWP principles in practice is still work in progress. PERL’s efforts on this front, highlighted in a recent ODI public event, have yielded important insights and takeaways that reinforce wider lessons and implications in the field about how international actors can support TWP more effectively in programme design and implementation. Below are three crucial considerations that emerge from the PERL experience as essential to enable TWP in action.

1. An enabling environment for TWP is vital

PERL has been implemented within a broader political context that has both enabled and constrained TWP, and the tensions that have ensued from this have not been easy to navigate. On the one hand, DFID/FCDO have championed TWP principles at an institutional level through, among other things, incorporating TWP and adaptation language in high-level strategy documents. PERL has also developed a variety of features (including, for example, a specific output on learning in its Results Framework) to incentivise and encourage TWP. Yet, other processes and dynamics — including most notably growing pressures for upward accountability (or accountability to DFID/FCDO and the wider UK public) and for the delivery of quick and more easily quantifiable results — have made it considerably more difficult to match such intentions in practice.

The programme’s emphasis on Payment by Results (PbR), in particular, has generated incentives that have reduced the space and scope to take risks, learn (especially from what does not work), and adapt accordingly. Indeed, as the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) found in a 2017 report, PbR approaches may not be suitable for complex programmes operating in challenging environments — such as PERL in Nigeria.

Let’s be clear that the concern here is not about results and the need to report on them, but rather about how reporting is undertaken within a given programme and the purpose this serves. In PERL’s case, the way that PbR has been applied has conditioned the programme’s ability to operate in line with TWP principles. Reporting needs and requirements, involving an extensive list that includes numerous PEAs, semi-annual and annual reviews, and monthly, quarterly, biannual and annual learning sessions and reports, have consistently crowded out space for deeper, more meaningful, and more strategic learning and reflection, and have taken precedence over other priorities related to TWP.

How PERL has used PEA helps to illustrate this. Building on years of experience, the quality of PEA has been high historically. However, because the analysis has been turned into a milestone payment, it has become increasingly instrumentalised, and, in some instances, turned into more of a tick boxing exercise than something more meaningful and substantive.

2. Deeper and more strategic learning needs to be put at the centre

One crucial implication from the above is that there is an urgent need to rethink how accountability requirements, results frameworks and other processes can support TWP more effectively. Among other things:

  • A more profound shift from accountability for reporting towards accountability for learning is needed, which is a finding that also emerges from other research in this area. Sometimes, it may well be the case that less (onerous)reporting will allow the programme to deliver more. So, an important question for donors and implementing partners to consider is what is needed from a reporting perspective and why: what could a programme like PERL do less of to carve out needed time and space for deeper and more strategic thinking and learning, while ensuring the donor feels comfortable, especially in relation to pressures for upward accountability?
  • It is also essential to reframe learning so that it is not seen purely in reporting and accounting terms. As PERL’s experience suggests, to support deeper learning for adaptive programming, it is important to delink learning from reporting on activities and outputs and (re)focus attention on outcomes. This change entails shifting from a narrow emphasis on what a programme does and whether it hits its immediate targets, towards a focus on how and why it does what it does, including, among other things, testing embedded assumptions and hypotheses about how change happens, as well as overall strategy and direction.

3. TWP is resource intensive, but worth the investment

Lastly, TWP calls for ways of engaging in practice that require considerable commitment and resourcing. A defining lesson from PERL, as well as other efforts in the TWP space, is that institutional leadership and champions are essential to foster an authorising environment and management culture that encourage adaptive ways of working. Within PERL and in other adaptive programmes, DFID/FCDO staff have played an indispensable role in building trust and enabling collective learning as the foundation to improve outcomes. Trust-building has worked best when DFID/FCDO have engaged with a programme like PERL as a partnership rather than as a contractual relationship between the ‘client’ and the ‘contractor(s)’, and when they have let go of central control and the tendency to be overly prescriptive about programmatic choices in favour of learning and experimentation.

Building relationships that are based on trust is resource-intensive: it requires a significant investment in terms of time, staff and skills. While the current environment in the UK seems particularly challenging in light of the sharp cuts to the aid budget, this is a healthy reminder that TWP is not about “doing more with less”.

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.