Introducing the learning exchange survey
As part of a peer learning exchange funded by the Open Society Foundation, the African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), Global Integrity (GI) and Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) have been sharing lessons and reflections about the processes and challenges of adapting to COVID-19. We were curious to know how our partners and other fiscal governance organizations working in Africa were adapting to the challenges of a global pandemic. In October of 2020, we disseminated an online survey among fiscal governance civic actors asking about the challenges and needs concerning COVID-19 adaptation. A total of 24* organizations from Southern, Eastern, Western, and Central Africa responded to our survey.
Survey results: Challenges faced by civic actors due to COVID-19
The challenges of adapting to COVID-19 as expressed by survey respondents working in Fiscal Governance (FG) & Anti-Corruption (AC) followed similar strands. Our findings revealed that organizations have had to shift their priorities to address the following three issues:
- improving levels of transparency, accountability and public participation surrounding COVID-19 resource use,
- preventing and/or detecting corruption or mismanagement of COVID-19 finances, and
- improving government emergency response to COVID-19.
Furthermore, the survey results revealed that organizations faced a number of constraints that hindered them from adapting their work in useful ways, the most meaningful being,
- financial cost
- lack of skills, tools & capabilities, and
- lack of data.
Survey respondents reported that adaptation was a costly undertaking that they struggled to afford, particularly because the changes had come unexpectedly. Respondents also found that making operational changes to theories of change, assumptions, activities, and outputs for an entire organization, or even just one programme, required particular skill sets, a flexible mindset and internal processes and tools that many organizations did not possess. Survey respondents stated that COVID-19 had largely affected their ability to carry out activities and to collect vital MEL data on their programmes’ performance against key indicators. As such, they lacked sufficient data and information to adapt their fiscal governance programme activities, resulting in project delays and extensions.
Our recommendations for what civic actors can do to enable adaptation
These barriers to adaptation as articulated by survey respondents were barriers that we – PSAM, GI and ATAF – also faced and worked to overcome. Here are three recommendations based on our experiences and insights emanating from reflection exercises we undertook as part of our learning exchange.
Undertake organizational and project scenario planning exercises
During the early stages of the pandemic, GI & PSAM both conducted internal scenario planning exercises as well as strategic reflection workshops to help each organization with the process of redesigning theories of change, MEL frameworks, project work plans and internal operations. In addition, all three organizations (GI, ATAF & PSAM) interviewed and solicited feedback from each of their partners and donors in order to be more responsive to emerging partner needs. With this feedback, each organization conducted an intentional but quick assessment of the financial implications of adapting organizational and project-level activities, strategies/ ToCs and outputs. The results helped to prioritize limited resources as well as to redirect resources and capacities effectively.
Invest in developing & iterating virtual processes, tools and systems
In response to the challenge of not being able to operate in physical contexts, ATAF adopted a model of reviewing work plans virtually and more frequently (weekly & monthly). PSAM, GI & ATAF also responded to increased demand for virtual activities by training and developing staff capacities and organizational resources to successfully conduct activities online.
Notable examples include:
- GI’s Open Gov Hub published an internal How-To Guide for Designing & Delivering High-Impact Virtual Trainings and Workshops to strengthen the capacity of its members who are civic actors working in open governance.
- PSAM & GI collaborated with Columbia University’s SIPA Picker Center Digital Education Group to develop tailored online course creation tools which they are using to develop and offer online training & workshops.
- ATAF has also increased their number of online technical training workshops, adapting content to help participants navigate COVID-19 fiscal governance related challenges.
The transition to online activities also changes how organizations can improve these activities by using monitoring data and reflection insights. For instance, GI’s communications strategy has been adapted to monitor key metrics and indicators for online events. This includes tracking the effectiveness of outreach strategies on social media, the number and type of event attendees, and the levels of responsiveness and engagement across a diverse range of communication outputs, such as dynamic video content summarizing insights and lessons gained from an event. This also includes tracking any collaborative actions arising from an event, experimenting with different formats, and conducting surveys during or after an event to solicit feedback from participants. PSAM and GI’s collaborative Account4Covid webinar series tracked this data systematically in 2020 and they plan to use the data to improve and diversify the design and implementation of the webinar series and other online learning activities this year.
Listen and respond to staff concerns and challenges about working in the midst of a pandemic.
Supporting the physical as well as mental well-being of staff is the foundation for continued progress, stability and work productivity during stressful and uncertain times. PSAM, ATAF and GI have updated their HR practices to manage staff working from home and offline in order to help staff execute their duties with minimum stress. This includes making accommodations for colleagues who are facing the additional challenge of looking after family members as well as home schooling. The organizations are working to further develop support systems that encourage and assist staff to achieve a work-life balance while working from home.
Our recommendations for what civic actors can do to strengthen their strategies for improving transparency and accountability of COVID-19 funds.
Civic actors who responded to the survey say they are systematically tracking or monitoring the government’s fiscal openness of COVID-19 funds in order to improve levels of transparency, accountability and public participation (TAP) of COVID-19 resources. In addition, survey respondents requested some technical assistance and resources for adapting their strategies in order to improve fiscal governance of COVID-19 funds in their contexts. Below are opportunities developed by GI, PSAM & ATAF that civic actors can draw upon to achieve these fiscal governance goals:
Trainings and toolkits:
- ATAF has expanded its technical assistance program which builds the institutional and human capacities of its members to resolve fiscal governance challenges.
- PSAM has developed a COVID-19 response toolkit with guidelines that answer a series of questions relating to each process within the public resource management cycle to assist accountability practitioners to plan for and monitor state responses to the diverse threats posed by the pandemic.
- ATAF has developed guidelines and policy briefs to assist its members in building more effective tax regimes in the COVID-19 and post COVID-19 era both in the tax policy and tax administration space.
Online Databases & Open Data platforms:
- GI & PSAM have been curating resources in order to create a COVID-19 resource database to enhance the capacities of fiscal governance strategic efforts and activities via the GI COVID-19 Fiscal Governance & Anti Corruption database & PSAM COVID-19 resource library.
- PSAM has been successfully collaborating with the South African National Treasury, other government agencies as well as a coalition of civic actors resulting in the creation of open data platforms that improve transparency of COVID-19 resource allocations in South Africa: including by developing online platforms such as Keep the receipts platform & Vulekamali.
- GI is collaborating with CODE & BudgIT through the COVID Transparency and Accountability project (CTAP) to launch a pan-African “Follow the money” website for collating and tracking COVID-19 allocations and expenditures across several African countries in the region in early 2021.
- GI & PSAM have been building capacities by virtually convening actors who seek to improve and adapt their TAP strategies in relation to monitoring COVID-19 funds via the Account4Covid initiative and PSAM’s online community of practice for social accountability practitioners (COPSAM).
Learning takeaways for 2021
Going into 2021, we will continue to support the capacities and strategies of fiscal governance actors seeking to improve transparency, accountability and participation of COVID-19 resource use via knowledge exchange, peer learning, convening, open data platforms, research and advocacy. If you are a donor or an INGO, here are few ideas on what you can do to help civic organizations in Africa and elsewhere:
- Provide financial & technical assistance to enable adaptation as quickly and as effectively as possible.
- Develop and disseminate free and/or affordable capacity building training and resources (workshops, templates, tools, resources, databases, guides) to build adaptive & fiscal governance capacities.
- Choose to participate in and/or help to facilitate peer learning, knowledge exchange and collaborative partnerships between diverse actors.
- Share your stories, experiences, ideas and/or lessons about adapting to COVID-19. These ideas and comments can help us and others like us to be more effective during the pandemic and beyond.
If you would like to learn more about adaptive management: Click here for a list of resources.
(*) We acknowledge a small sample of 24 organizations is a survey limitation but we appreciate the difficulty of participating in a survey in the midst of a pandemic and are grateful to those who took the time to respond during a difficult time.
Co-Written by Jay Kruuse (Director at PSAM), Gertrude Mugizi (Head of the Regional Learning Programme at PSAM), Susan Nakato (Supervisor in Corporate Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation at the Uganda Revenue Authority’s Research, Planning and Development Division. Member of the Africa Tax Administration Forum), Yeukai Mukorombindo-Chiweshe, (Research and Learning Manager at Global Integrity) and Jorge Florez (Fiscal Governance Manager at Global Integrity).