This article originally appeared in the Making All Voices Count blog on July 3, 2017.
How does a moment last forever… or at least long enough for lessons to be learned? This is the challenge for innovation initiatives – short-spanned, risk-taking, development projects that aim to test a theory of change in the most strategic way possible. Sustainability is almost always difficult to achieve.
But as we revisit one of the Making All Voices Count-supported projects in the Philippines implemented from 2015-2016, we find out that there are ways to make lessons learned endure beyond the project end.
The one-year innovation project
In 2015, the Philippines was at the peak of implementing the Bottom-Up Budgeting (BuB) program, which was a funding facility of the national government to support local projects identified through grassroots participatory processes. During that time, BuB was struggling with project implementation delays – from the movement of the funds from national to local, to the schedule of disbursements according to project plans. From the dialogues of local governments with BuB-implementing national government agencies (ministries) – particularly with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Department of Budget and Management – one issue stood out as possible for prototype designing.
This issue was the complicated and unharmonized project monitoring and reporting guidelines. BuB projects then were overseen by 13 government agencies, and each agency had its own set of required project reporting forms that needed compliance from the local governments for audit and clearing of fund tranches. This proved to be extremely taxing on capacities of local governments.
We spend more time complying with reports instead of going out to the communities to monitor the projects. – Municipal engineer
This was one dimension of the BuB challenge that our MAVC-supported project sought to address. We conducted a usability study of the OpenBuB portal (which housed the project funding and implementation details). We engaged three provincial governments to explore community-designed prototypes of online and offline technologies that allowed more efficient data gathering and management to assist the municipalities in reporting compliance. And from the narratives from the ground, we audited the reporting requirements of each agency, developed an inventory of the range and number of documents needed for submission, and reported our findings to the BuB-implementing government agencies.
The agencies did not realize how diverse the requirements and templates are per agency per BuB project were until they saw the consolidated list ULAP prepared – Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG)
We documented our project findings and recommendations through a white paper, and presented the insights in a Lessons Learned Session with government agencies and civil society representatives in May 2016. The one-year project, at that point, formally ended.
The insights that remained
Fast forward to June 2017. BuB is no longer implemented by national government. Instead, the current administration introduced Assistance to Disadvantaged Municipalities (ADM), which provides grant support to local infrastructure projects requested by municipal governments. This meant that the BuB prototypes we helped design from roughly two years ago are no longer in place, understandably. This also meant that the reporting requirements across agencies, upon completion of the projects, would no longer be in place.
But this does not mean the insights that we offered then have been lost in the policy and new-program discussions now.
In recent conversations on ADM with the DILG Project Management Office (PMO) led by Richard Villacorte, he shared that DILG is currently working on an ADM portal for transparency of information about project funds and implementation status. They are also gearing up towards co-developing a technology that will gather as much citizen feedback as possible – something that did not happen with the BuB portal, of which many reasons were discussed in our previous white paper.
And Mr. Villacorte, as well as his program team members, said that they have “learned so much” from the project we implemented before.
We keep your recommendations as a ready reference so we can do better this time – DILG Project Management Office (PMO), Richard Villacorte
He shared that they are now more conscious about what technologies are developed for which audience, and how the technologies are best designed for access and usability.
Learning about these is a tap on the back. There are no numbers to show this; no policy reference to directly quote and attribute impact to. But the project work made a dent in the understanding and appreciation of the planners and decision-makers. And more importantly, the project work is influencing design sensibilities beyond BuB for which it was originally based on. The insights have exceeded the project longevity.
What can we learn from this experience? I offer a few notes for policy innovators and advocates:
- Relationship-building with the decision-makers is of utmost importance. And oftentimes, the change agents you need to engage are not necessarily only those at the top of the bureaucracies. They are those who directly incorporate your insights into their work. And usually, they are those who continue manning institutions beyond political terms. Engage them at a level of trust that even if you offer hard-hitting feedback at times, they would know that you are an ally of institutional reform.
- Never underestimate the need to document. All activities you do, all feedback you gather. And process them as quickly and as often as you can. This exercise in constant monitoring, evaluation, and learning allows you and your organization to be as agile as possible in strategizing and making decisions. And when the time comes that you have to consolidate all your learnings, it would be easier to spot patterns and make the narrative for your theory of change.
- When it comes to innovation projects, exhaust all insights possible. An innovation project is short and it is a risk taken to test if a certain set of strategies could work. This means the project will most likely have ended before significant outcomes emerge. But your best contribution to the discourse is to offer as much evidence and insights as you can. Be the literature for those who want to build on what you have learned.
I end this article with a quote from Mr. Villacorte:
Many times, you don’t aspire for institutionalization because you realize there were many things that you did wrong. What we did was not to sustain, not to institutionalize the program and how it was done. We use the learnings from BuB. I think that is what sustainability of initiatives should also mean – when learnings are used on top of each other. You learn so you can build something better.