Thursday, 3 May 2012

More on Change: systems, principles, and learning

By Elise Wach

I am back to talk about change following on from my previous postings (Change is hard and Change is hard but not impossible) on how you change a sector, Here are some reflections from the latest IRC Triple-S learning retreat.

IRC is attempting to change the way water is provided in rural communities by:
  1. changing the way things work at the level of rural communities so that water is available to everyone indefinitely, and
  2. changing the water sector to enable this to happen. 
I think it is easy to get lost in the frameworks and theories that attempt to explain how to achieve these changes. For example, there are a number of different frameworks proposed for influencing policy and measuring that influence (for example Crewe and Young 2002, Court and Young 2003, Steven 2007, Gladwell 2000, etc.). These provide useful insights as to what might make a difference, but at the end of the day we need to remember that these are complex and unique systems that we are trying to change: so there is no ‘best practice’! 

Danny Burns’ seminar at IDS yesterday on "How Change Happens" helped remind me that while it is not necessarily labelled as such, Triple-S is essentially using a Systemic Action Research (PDF) approach: their larger (systems) view of the water sector and iterative learning processes enable them to recognise and respond to opportunities for change.

Image from: 
In attempting to influence policy, for example, Triple-S is not just looking at written policy documents (although this is one piece of Triple-S work).  But they recognise that policy change results from and is indicated by changes in discourse, perceptions, agendas, networks, political contexts, and institutions.  And that a multitude of stakeholders are involved in those changes, including journalists, NGO workers, researchers, finance ministers, and even people who post on Twitter. They recognise that certain events (such as a change in government) can greatly accelerate or completely block policy changes. 

And that the right evidence and information at the right time delivered to the right people could make a difference.  So the Triple-S approach is built on the assumption that changing policy doesn’t entail following a formula but instead recognising and responding to opportunities and trigger points.

At the rural community level, Triple-S is trying to ensure that the rural water sector takes into account a variety of factors in order to ensure that water services are provided to everyone indefinitely.  So this means looking at life-cycle costs, mechanisms for transparency and accountability, possible alternative service providers, accounting for the multiple uses of water, etc. etc.  

But does viewing these issues with a systemic lens mean that we become paralysed by the complexity?  Danny Burns pointed out yesterday that the key is to focus on action rather than on consensus.  To focus on the actions that different actors can take that can change the system.  Or as Bob Williams explains in his the Ottawa Charter approach (doc), it will be a ‘strategically selected jigsaw of people and organisations doing what they are most effective at’ that will create lasting change, rather than Triple-S trying to change the sector on its own.

Triple-S isn’t trying to get consensus around a specific approach to achieving sustainable rural water supply, but is instead trying to get everyone on board with basic set of principles for sustainable services and providing a range of resources and tools and building capacities (look out for new trainings in the near future) to put those principles in action. They are leveraging existing institutions and structures, and working closely with individuals and organisations to facilitate ownership.

But getting people to wrap their heads around the concept of changing their principles is a big obstacle.  People want tools and approaches that they can go put into action, and while Triple-S is providing a range of these, success starts with viewing rural water supply completely differently: it isn’t ‘the Service Delivery Approach’ but ‘a Service Delivery Approach’. 

Another obstacle Triple-S is facing relates to the way in which evidence is perceived.  So there are people who say, ‘this is all fine and good in theory, but is it really possible? Can we really achieve both sustainability and scale? Where is the evidence?’  Evidence is a strong word.  Today, it usually refers to a call for a ‘rigorous’ approach like a randomised control trial.  But if you want to find out if services are provided forever, then how long do you have to wait for the RCT results?  And here is where I cannot resist but refer to the brilliant example of the limitations of RCTs – would you doubt that a parachute would make jumping out of a plane safer just because an RCT has not proven it?  I think this highlights the need for the development community to reflect on what we consider to be evidence.     

But I don’t think that these obstacles are insurmountable, especially given that Triple-S’ approach enables it to recognise and respond to opportunities and challenges while remaining focused.  One of the Triple-S pillars is for the rest of the rural water sector to have ‘a strong learning and adaptive capacity’.  I see this as pre-requisite for success in the other two pillars, and in the rural water sector in general.  But achieving this is....well, complex.