Listening to the people we work for
My last blog post talked about the need for organizations to listen to their staff. But it’s even more for organizations to listen to the people they work for. And to be clear – in aid organizations this should be people in developing countries – the beneficiaries, counterparts or “rights holders” who we are trying to assist rather than the donors who have a very powerful voice already – which comes from their money.
But a big challenge to this listening is in how to do it. The people who benefit from aid are not those who pay for it, they can be hard to identify and locate, and many common feedback techniques used in private companies or used by governments in the developed world may not be appropriate.
Luckily CDA Collaborative Learning Projects recently came out with a new publication “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” which takes a detailed look at some of the different approaches being used by development organizations to incorporate feedback mechanisms into their programmes identifying some of the common techniques used, and also laying out some good practices and challenges based on the experience of a number of organizations they looked at.
Linda Raftree has a nice summary of some of the key points on her blog. The report itself is not too long and fairly easy to digest and like Linda I’d recommend downloading and reading the whole thing.
One conclusion of the report echoes a point I also raised about listening to staff – that success requires senior management buy-in. The report notes that some organizations have developed feedback mechanisms in respond to donor demand – but if this is not accompanied by and organizational commitment to getting and using feedback this often isn’t very effective. This is because in order to be effective feedback systems need to be prioritized in terms of resources, but also in terms of the internal organizational incentives for managers to participate in them.
Unless feedback systems are clearly prioritized, especially by senior management, the processes may fall to the bottom of the pile when staff are overwhelmed by other commitments.
But the report also goes on to make a practical suggestion on how to minimize the time burden of feedback mechanisms:
For this reason, some organizations have begun to include recipient feedback mechanisms into other systems, such as for monitoring and evaluation, rather than establishing an entirely separate tool or reporting requirement. For example, monitoring and evaluation teams are often able to solicit feedback from primary stakeholders by asking some additional questions during their routine visits, including assessing how easily people feel they are able to provide feedback to the agency.
Overall the report appropriately lays a good deal of stress on the importance of the people and systems side of feedback mechanisms and the challenges with them rather than focussing only on the techniques and tools. Many of these aspects will be very familiar to people who have worked on change management, or knowledge management for that matter – since collecting and using feedback effectively really is a change management issue for most organizations (and a knowledge management one since we have to collect all that information and then decide how to interpret it and use it).
The biggest issue here is that there’s little point of collecting feedback if there is little intention of using it. And not only that – but in turn giving feedback to those who provided the inputs on how they have been used – closing the feedback loop. This is essential to build trust which can make aid more effective, but also makes local counterparts more trusting and satisfied with the assistance they are receiving.
Another important observation from the report that also seems familiar from other areas of work is that lessons learned and good practices in this area are poorly documented – a deficit that this report does important work to help address. There is a good set of references at the end of the paper on this topic – but since this is (relatively speaking) an emerging field it’s perhaps not surprising that there isn’t more information out there on what works.
The report does highlight three “emerging approaches”:
1. Use of SMS and mobile phones (not surprising as there is a lot going on in this area right now)
2. Story collecting – interesting because on the one hand there is an emphasis here on collecting qualitative data to better understand the experience of the people we work for – but at the same time to combine the stories and other materials using “Sensemaker” an analytical tool developed by Dave Snowden’s Cognitive Edge team for helping understand complex systems.
3. Telephone helplines/hotlines.
An area that is only mentioned in passing in the report is the use of social media (outside use of SMS based systems). I’m not sure whether that’s because few of the organizations they looked at are using them. Use of social media tools to get feedback on products and services is now widely practiced by companies and more and more by developed country governments – but aid examples are still very thin on the ground – in part no doubt due to the fact that most of the we hope to hear from don’t have access to social media – but perhaps also because aid organizations have yet to embrace and seriously experiment with this approach. It would be great to see more organizations experiment with this, particularly in middle-income countries where usage is growing, and to document and share this experience. (see my previous post 8 uses for social media in aid work)
Another interesting area to think about is the potential benefits of putting donors (individual and institutional) more directly in touch with those people they intend to help – not only to help hold the intermediaries (the aid organizations) to account – but also to help educate donors more about what type of help is really needed, what kinds of unseen barriers they face and what kind of results can realistically be expected. This might also help reduce some of the skewed incentives that donors can unwittingly place on aid organizations, as well as giving donors some tangible but also realistic sense of what they contributions achieve in people’s lives which might help to motivate them to give more and to give smartly.