Learning by doing: Our action plan for open governance

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By Alan Hudson, Executive Director

As regular readers will know, we’ve been making the case that adaptive learning — a structured approach to learning by doing — should be central to the open governance agenda, and is central to our strategy, for more than 18 months (See for instance: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). Over the last six months we’ve been working hard, not just to put adaptive learning into practice across our various programs and projects, but also to more clearly explain why we think that adaptive learning is so important, what it means in practice, and how our work supports and explores the value of adaptive learning. Our learning plan is the fruit of these efforts.

At the heart of our work is a theory of change, which is likely as old as learning itself. This theory of change holds that people and organizations can sharpen their impact and effectiveness by putting adaptive learning into practice. Our learning plan sets out how we are implementing and exploring this theory of change in relation to our efforts to promote open and accountable governance.

First, it explains what we mean by adaptive learning and why it is central to what we do. Second, it describes how we are supporting adaptive learning through our programs and projects, working with country-level and external partners on: data and citizen engagement (see, for instance, our work on integrity in Africa and in the USA); multi-stakeholder governance initiatives (including the Open Government Partnership), open fiscal governance (including our ‘Treasure Hunts’ work in Mexico), and money in politics (including our work on campaign finance). And third, it outlines how we are practicing what we preach, putting adaptive learning into practice, not only through our programs and projects but also at the organizational and individual levels.

What is adaptive learning and why is it central to what we do?

Adaptive learning is a structured process of learning by doing: a continuous process of theoretically-informed, data-driven, reflection and adaptation, aimed at improving impact and effectiveness.

       Figure. The cycle of adaptive learning

Adaptive learning cycle
Adaptive learning is central to what we do. First, because our aim is to support processes of change in complex social and political systems. Second, because sustainable change in such systems comes about through locally-led efforts to craft and implement best-fit approaches, rather than through the implementation of best-practice blueprints. And third, because finding the best way forward in a complex political landscape is always a process of trial and error.

Adaptive learning — when it engages the political dynamics of development, strengthens reform coalitions, and informs political action — provides a means of navigating complexity, closing the gap between policy commitments and implementation, addressing delivery challenges and delivering results.


By developing and implementing a learning plan — and making explicit the theory of change at its heart — we aim to sharpen our impact and effectiveness in supporting progress toward more open governance and better development outcomes, and that of other actors too. This plan provides a framework for reflection and learning. We will revise it and refine what we do in the light of that reflection. Crafting our learning plan has been a challenge. But we are pleased with the progress we have made.

Our learning plan has been shaped by the various conversations that we have been having over recent years, including with colleagues in the Doing Development Differently, T/A Learn and Thinking and Working Politically communities of practice. Our hope is that our learning plan will be a useful contribution to those conversations. We would love to get your feedback on our plans and to hear about how your organization approaches learning, the plans you have made, the challenges you have faced, and the successes you have enjoyed. We look forward to learning along together  — including through the Adaptive Development Google Group  — with colleagues around the world who are putting adaptive learning into practice, to support progress toward more open governance and better development outcomes.

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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