KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

What’s your (official) position?

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Ben Ramalingam posted an interesting blog some time ago on whether organizations need “official positions” on policy issues.

He referred to David Ellerman’s paper from 2000 which criticized organizational positions drawing on his experience at the World Bank. They both gave a number of good arguments as to why fixed organizational positions can be harmful. In particular formulation of positions is time-consuming and political and so positions can be hard to change once they have been adopted, even in the face of new evidence and changing  circumstances. They can also stifle research and new thinking as people are reluctant to do something that might give results at odds with the official position, both because it is less likely to be accepted, but even out of fear on the effects on their careers. Official positions often get ahead of the available research or are presented much more simplistically and categorically than is supported by available evidence, and what new evidence there is tends to be interpreted to support existing thinking rather than to challenge it.

Almost all the commenters on Ben’s blog – including David Ellerman himself– were supportive of not having official positions.

Sounds pretty damning right?

But “official positions” might also be a necessary evil. If you are a research institution your position might be simply to ethically pursue the truth, but if your organization wants to meaningfully engage in advocacy or programmatic work then it would be hard to do so without organizational positions or views to back them up.

Here are a few concrete reasons why official positions are useful:

1. Organizations who are engaged in advocacy work need (evidence informed) policy positions which to advocate from.

2. Positions also help donors and supporters understand what the organization does and what it stands for (and whether they want to fund them or not). What’s more they want to know what your position is on an issue, often as a source of authority.

3. Positions help staff to be able to speak and act on behalf of the organization, even in areas where they are not expert researchers – pretty important for the press officer, or even more importantly the head of office.

4. The process of arriving at positions can be important in creating dialogue and building consensus within the organization, and perhaps one of the few times when diverse evidence and different interests are brought together around an issue to agree on common ground.

5. Positions, especially ones that include values as well as evidence (such as a commitment to human rights or to eliminate child labour) are motivating to staff and partners. People are more motivated and work harder for organizations whose positions they believe in.

Regardless of the pros and cons of official positions, I think they are unlikely go away any time soon. The problems with official positions that Ellerman highlights are real, but for me the problem is not so much the idea of official positions itself, but more how they are developed and how they are used in practice. A few thoughts on good and bad ways of developing official positions:

1. An organization doesn’t need an official position on everything. Maybe it is better to build an organization’s work around a few core positions where the organization “knows” and where it has competence to act, and to be clear and honest about those areas which might fit within your organizational mandate, but for which the evidence about how to address them is far from clear.

2. A position need not be extremely detailed and prescriptive – it might rather be broad and principle based. Policy positions can be clear about intent without being overly prescriptive about the means to achieve them, that way they don’t need to constrain action too tightly and can be interpreted usefully in different contexts.

3. An official position need not mean that all programmes and technical advice correspond 100% with the official position – they might allow some latitude for the position to be interpreted or even occasionally contradicted based on circumstances on the ground. Doing this requires empowered managers and an organization that is willing to stand behind them and their decisions.

4. Research and evaluation should be allowed to be independent – in other words they should be carried out and their results published regardless of whether they support or contradict the official position. This might mean having some kind of research board or creating an independent research office that has freedom to set its own research agenda and a clear policy to publish whatever the results reveal about current policies and programmes.

5. Official positions need to be continually reviewed and revised based on both new evidence and also changing circumstances, including political ones. This review process needs to be institutionalized in some way such that policies need to have a limited shelf-life before they need to be reviewed.

6. The process of at arriving at a position needs to draw in evidence from a wide variety of sources both internal and external. It also needs to include diverse perspectives including beneficiary feedback, political analysis etc. evidence informed – but not decided by “scientific” research alone.

What is harder to achieve, but would be really helpful would be to foster a culture of critical thinking where staff are expected to challenge assumptions, and where they can (internally at a minimum) safely  express disagreement with current positions and offer evidence in support of that. The idea being that current thinking should be constantly evolving – and agreed positions should follow it, but not too far behind. This is challenging because it requires clear expectation setting and example setting from organizational leadership – since otherwise the default behaviour is to tell your bosses what you think they want to hear since bosses all too often unthinkingly “shoot the messenger”.

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Written by Ian Thorpe

May 31, 2012 at 10:06 am

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