By Alan Hudson — November 16, 2015.
I spent last week in Rio de Janeiro (tough assignment, I know), participating in the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s third T/A Learn Annual Workshop. As the report of the second Annual Workshop, held early in 2014 puts it, T/A Learn aims “to link those who want to deepen the understanding of transparency and accountability-related work, and who want to really apply that learning to the actions of their own organizations and the field more widely”, by creating spaces for collective learning and action.
I was excited to attend as part of a group of around 70 civil society activists, researchers and funders (see here for an event preview). T/A Learn’s aims are in line with our strategy (two-pager), a strategy that focuses on strengthening the ability of country-level actors to engage with the politics of governance reform and to try, learn and adapt their way toward reforms that work in their contexts. And we’re keen to continue to contribute to discussions that are taking place – including amongst the funders who make up the Transparency and Accountability Initiative – about the evolution of T/A Learn.
My hope was that the event would make progress on three fronts:
- Outlining the key challenges as regards efforts to promote more transparent and accountable governance (see this helpful paper from the Transparency and Accountability initiative on strengthening accountability ecosystems);
- Providing greater clarity about what “learning” means – learning for what, learning by whom, learning about what etc. – and how various forms of learning, particularly adaptive learning, can help to address the challenges of strengthening accountability ecosystems;
- Discussing what role the T/A Learn community might play in supporting learning and action that will contribute to addressing the key challenges.
So, how did it go?
I met lots of interesting people doing fascinating things, who I’m excited to keep in touch with. And the community of organizations exploring learning in the transparency and accountability space was further strengthened. But, despite a great cast of characters with a wealth of experience, a skilled facilitator and a refreshingly interactive format, the conversations didn’t make as much progress as I would have liked, hindered I felt by a lack of conceptual clarity about learning and its various forms. As a result there was, for my money, insufficient attention to the difference between simple and adaptive learning and the ways in which more of the latter, but not so much the former, can help to drive progress toward more open governance (see also these reflections and an earlier piece on “political analysis for citizen-led accountability” by Brendan Halloran of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative).
Figure 1: Simple and adaptive learning (from p.9 of our strategy)
|DIMENSIONS OF LEARNING||SIMPLE LEARNING||ADAPTIVE LEARNING|
|What sorts of problems can it address?||Simple problems that have transferrable solutions||Complex problems, which require tailored, emergent, solutions|
|What aspects of a problem does it focus on?||Technical aspects||Political and technical aspects|
|How does it see problems?||As isolated issues||In systemic terms|
|What questions does it ask?||What works||What works, where, how and why|
|What sorts of solutions does it aim for?||Best practice, one size fits all||Best fit for context|
|What is its timing?||One-off||Regular, continuous, iterative|
|Who drives the learning? Who is it for?||External actors||Internal (e.g. domestic) actors|
|How are the findings presented?||As solutions to be applied||As insights to be considered|
|How does it make a difference?||Transferring knowledge||Empowering actors|
|What priority is given to organizational learning?||Low. Priority is assessing what works.||High. Attention is given to organizational effectiveness.|
So, what’s my take on the future and value of T/A Learn? Is there a role for such a community? The short answer is yes. But, in my view, there needs to be an even sharper focus on how the challenges of supporting governance reform and strengthening accountability ecosystems might be addressed – and are being addressed – through cycles of trying, learning and adapting.
These conversations are taking place in other fora, including under the headings of “Doing Development Differently”, “Thinking and Working Politically”, “Adaptive Development” and “Collaborating, Learning, Adapting”. A try-learn-adapt-repeat approach to addressing specific problems, in particular contexts, which builds on rich practical experience from across the world, is steadily transforming policy and practice on governance and development. T/A Learn has a great opportunity to shape this agenda in important ways.
Discussions with T/A Learn colleagues from many countries, including the Philippines, Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa, Tanzania, Guatemala, India, Egypt, Kenya, Argentina, Mexico, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda and Indonesia left me excited by the practical experience that many organizations have with putting learning and adaptation at the center of their strategies. And a super-inspiring meeting with the founders of Our Cities, a Rio-based initiative with global ambition, that is a case study in the value of putting trying, learning and adapting center-stage, was the icing on the adaptive learning cake.
T/A Learn is set up to make connections amongst different types of actors (funders, researchers, practitioners), across levels (local, global, north, south) and from practice to policy to practice. As such, T/A Learn is well-placed to shape the emerging agenda on adaptive learning and development, so that it is driven by the demands of practitioners, builds on their experience, and supports their continuing struggles to strengthen accountability ecosystems. This opportunity should be seized.
We look forward to playing a supportive role in the evolution of T/A Learn. For starters, watch this space for news about a possible event on accountability systems and adaptive learning at the Open (and adaptive) Gov Hub in the New Year!
For more on the value of adaptive learning see:
- Dave Algoso – Operational models: Adaptive management in northern Karamoja
- Craig Valters – Theories of change: Time for a radical approach to learning in development
- Anna Wetterberg – Avoiding the tyranny of context in social accountability interventions
- Leni Wild and team – Adapting development