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Archive for March 2013

Post-2015: When a conversation is as important as an agreement

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Last week the UNDG launched “The Global Conversation Begins: emerging views for a new development agenda”. This report summarizes the inputs received so far in the various global conversations taking place around the post-2015 development agenda (see here for my previous description of the aim and the challenges in this global consultation project). It draws in particular from the global, thematic and national consultations and from the My World 2015 global vote.

But already the work of the high-level panel is drawing to a close to a conclusion with the final official panel meeting taking place this week in Bali, and their report to the Secretary General due by the end of May. Many of the thematic consultations are now wrapping up while the national consultations are at various stages of completion, and the global vote is still ongoing.

Taking it at face value, given the very diverse group of people who have been involved in some way or other in the post-2015 discussions, and the broad range of issues and opinions shared, it’s likely that a large number of people will experience some disappointment that their views or issues don’t make it into the report of the High Level Panel. And beyond that, once the report is submitted it then goes into the “official process” for inter-governmental negotiations and any resulting agreement on the post-2015 goals will be made by agreement of UN member state governments, which might or might not follow the recommendations of the high-level panel.

So the question is, what is the value of the global conversation once the High Level Panel have completed their work and the intergovernmental negotiations begin?

1. Most obviously (and reassuringly) – the global conversation is helping shape the views of the High Level Panel. They have been strong supporters of the consultation efforts and have been quite open to hearing from and interacting with a broad range of partners about what the agenda should look like. they will of course need to prioritize carefully from among the ideas they have heard, and their own perspectives – but the level of openness to hear from others is something we have rarely seen in the past.

2. Once the report is completed, the discussion moves on to the intergovernmental sphere. Here the record of listening has not historically been so good – but this time it will be much harder for negotiators to ignore voices from civil society, youth, academia, media etc. there has been so much discussion on post-2015 that it seems hard to get away from it, and with many more people actively following and engaged with the discussions it will be much harder for government representatives to duck difficult issues – for example the issue of growing inequalities keeps coming up in different guises, a sensitive issue to be sure, but one which I expect will be hard to sideline.

3. One additional benefit from all the conversations is the mobilization of diverse group of actors around the future of development. The networks built and the issues discussed will reverberate well beyond the discussions around agreeing the agenda itself, both informing how it is implemented, and creating a movement of people who will be watching government commitments and action, and also continuing the discussions around the best way to make things happen and helping contribute to them.

4.While the outcomes of any of the thematic discussion may influence only a small number of the goals in the final agreement, they did also create a conversation about prioritization, implementation  and measurement within those themes and the outcomes of those discussions have the potential to influence future directions within that theme or sector and create new partnerships and approaches. Similarly while any individual national consultation may have limited influence over the global agreement, they have, if successful, succeeded in creating broad-based discussion about national development priorities which is more inclusive than the processes usually used to elaborate national development plans. These can also serve as an important basis for the UN’s planning as part of a strategic dialogue which can be used in preparation of the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF).

5. The global conversation itself sets a precedent in consultation and citizen engagement on major international decisions which shows that it is possible, and worthwhile to reach out to citizens and broaden the conversation beyond the usual suspects – and in so doing make it harder for others who seek to continue with intergovernmental decision-making behind closed doors.

For these reasons the global conversation is about much more than the final summaries or the eventual post-2015 agenda – it’s about doing development a different way. But this will only work if the international community keeps the conversation going, and maintains the focus on delivering the post-2015 agenda and in holding themselves to account for it.

It’s not too late to join the conversation – share your views and your expertise on the World We Want 2015 platform or participate in the MyWorld2015 global vote.

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Written by Ian Thorpe

March 26, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Bureaucratic mindset

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An example of British bureaucracy at its finest–courtesy of “Little Britain”

The UN is often spoken of as being very bureaucratic, and not in a good way. And those of us who work here have all had days when we struggle with trying to maintain optimism and getting things done due to the challenges of following myriad rules written and unwritten (see an earlier blog post “working with one hand tied behind your back”).

I’ve also written before about some of the problems with how we develop rules and the large number of them (see earlier post “afraid of responsibility – try regulation”). But rules are also very valuable in ensuring that as public employees are accountable both to our donors and beneficiaries, to help us systematically follow good practice that has been developed from experience, to ensure that we are consistent and fair in how we work, to minimize risks and to save time and energy by avoiding us making up new procedures every time we do a new project.

But while we can criticize the number and nature of some of the rules we have to follow and how they constrain us – I’m increasingly aware that it’s often not the rules themselves that cause the problem but the mind-frame that many people within the system adopt in applying them, often after a career of frustrated attempts to change things. Often when we are “fighting the system” to get things done it feels like we are actually fighting ourselves – or at least our bosses and colleagues.

So what’s behind this mindset? A few things include:

1. Risk aversion – Public bureaucracies are notoriously risk averse – and not without reason. Both donors and internal control mechanisms encourage compliance with rules, long deliberation and sticking with fixed plans over taking initiative and seizing opportunities or doing something bold. This translates at an individual level to taking it slowly, consulting widely often to cover your back as much as to seek insight, and ensuring everything goes through multiple formal review mechanisms and sign-offs.

2. Tall poppy syndrome – a fear of taking initiative and drawing too much attention to oneself for fear of being “cut down to size” by others in the system. This can be especially true in a bureaucracy as the culture is one of duty to the institution and the system over pushing ones own ideas or agenda.

3. Reluctance to change. We’re all to some extent resistant to change – but in public organizations the organizational culture is one of stability or slow change. Security including job security is one of the motivating reasons why some people choose to work there. Of course public organizations do frequently have change management processes introduced or imposed on them – but in practice these are often quite painful processes that awake resistance rather than something that motivates people to change. A part of this is because the processes are usually imposed by external forces who see public organizations as rigid and the employees as something that needs to be fixed. (I’m currently taking a course on “Leading strategic innovation in organizations” with Coursera and heard this great quote from the course professor, David Owens “Innovation is something you do to others, change is something that is done to you”).

4. Losing sight of the results. In a large organization it’s easy to end up focusing on the mechanics and processes of your work and your specific tasks (and thus following procedures and rules) rather than focusing on the larger goal to which your work contributes and how you do your work fits in with that.

5. Split between doers and enforcers. Often in the UN our work is divided between two groups of people – those who develop ideas or programmes, and those people who perform the operational support that to happen. This means you often have “programme officers” who want to get things done but who don’t know the rules and  “operations and support staff” whose job it is to keep them in check and make sure that all the rules and procedures are followed correctly. This often means that programme people can’t understand why we need to follow certain procedures to protect the organization and operations people don’t feel they have a stake in the results the programme people are seeking.

How can we overcome this?  There are a number of systemic issues I’d love to change such as the relationship with donors, or the organizations approach to innovation and risk management, but while we are waiting for Godot those to happen, we should ask ourselves: what can we do as individuals to overcome the bureaucratic mindset in colleagues, or in ourselves? I don’t have any silver bullets since if I knew how to overcome this I’d probably already own a highly profitable consulting firm by now Smile but here are a few thoughts that are looking for feedback:

1. Focus on identifying the results you want to achieve first – then figure out how to achieve the results within the rules.  It might be necessary to modify your plans in order to do them according to the rules and to get people to buy into what you are doing – but you should continually remember what it is you are trying to achieve and whether your modified plans are still getting you where you want to be. If you start by thinking about what you know you are able to do you are already restricting your possibilities. Better to work backwards from an ideal that starting off with something that is already limited. Even if your work seems a small contribution to a much larger distant goal, it’s always good to retain focus on the larger picture and judge your work on whether it continues to support it.

2. Don’t rush to judgement. Try to identify multiple possible solutions to any problems you are facing including a few crazy ones. Don’t assess and discard them too early or rush to pick a single solution until you’ve had chance to think of the problem from different angles. The more ideas you have the more likely that some of them will be good, and you might be able to pull things from the ideas you discarded to help you later in the project – but only if you had them in the first place.

3. Challenge your assumptions – or have someone challenge them for you. If you think something can’t be done – try to identify explicitly what the barriers are that you are seeing and look to see if there is some way to overcome them or what might happen if you lay them to one side for a while to be dealt with later while you flesh out the easier aspects of the problem. Getting someone from outside your usual circle to look at your problem might also help bring in new ideas or avoid getting stuck on familiar barriers.

4. Develop a support network. There’s nothing more discouraging than having someone say “I told you so” after an unsuccessful attempt to do something new. Try to develop a network of other people who have a similar mindset and mutually support each other both with ideas, but more importantly with moral support whether it be encouragement to keep going when there are setbacks or actual substantive support if you are in a position to do so. And just as you count on others for support, so they should also be able to count on you. (and a quick plug for the UN Transformation Network a group of UN staffers and consultants who work with the UN who are dedicated to transformation from within).

5. Build bridges to create co-ownership in the results – in particular try to get the people in procurement and human resources or elsewhere on board with your project and to also want it to succeed so that they will help you find a way to get it done that also conforms to the requirements of the organization. This way your result will be a better one both because it’s more likely to make it through the administrative hurdles, but also because you will have profited from the expertise of your colleagues in formulating it in the first place.

6. Get advice – but take your own decision. It’s likely that someone else has faced a similar situation to yours in getting things through the system and that they will have valuable lessons for you, even if they were unsuccessful.

7. Do something – even if it is small. Use whatever opportunities you have to make a change – even if it is a limited pilot or prototype. If you can’t persuade your bosses or “the system” to make a major change or take on a large project – try to get the space to do something small and experimental so that the risks are not too large, but that will allow you to test your ideas, refine them and prove that they can work (or try something else with your reputation intact if they don’t).

8. Finally, be true to yourself and your values. Try to keep focused on why you joined the organization and the change you wanted to make and don’t compromise on that, even if progress is slow. And try to set an example that others can follow, and get feedback from others on whether you are living up to that.

Fellow travellers: What are your suggestions for avoiding the bureaucratic mindset? I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 18, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Why Facebook is (probably) not the answer for your community of practice

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I was recently asked by some colleagues to help them set up a Facebook page for a community of practice for a small group of field based UN staff working in a number of challenging locations. They preferred Facebook over the UN’s official systems for this purpose as according to them everyone uses Facebook, and it’s more user-friendly.

I can see the attraction of setting up a Facebook space – making use of a tool everyone already uses, it’s quick to do, no technical skills are needed and no forms to fill. But for internal business related communities of practice Facebook also has a number of important limitations and for most circumstances I wouldn’t recommend it for this purpose. Here’s why:

1. You don’t own your content, and you don’t know where it will end up and how it will be used. There have been a number of controversies around the ownership and use of data posted on Facebook. While some of these have been resolved – there is a real concern that whatever you post is sitting on an external server somewhere and is being shared with people who you don’t want to see it – even if it’s just to help target advertising (so Facebook can recommend flack jackets and mosquito nets to you perhaps). Given the confidential and sensitive nature of some (but certainly not all) of the UN’s work this could be a little risky. And how many Facebook users really understand how to use the privacy settings correctly.

2. There’s no helpdesk. Yes it’s easy to use – but if your content is lost, or you didn’t adjust your privacy settings correctly or you can’t find something you entered, there’s no person to go to get help. And the nuances of Facebook are harder than they first appear, especially for managing pages and groups. Facebook are always updating their product, which can be good as it constantly improves, but you also have no control over how this happens –they can discontinue a feature or change what you see or chose to block content at any time and there’s nothing you can do about it (timeline anyone?).

3. Clutter. Facebook has so many features and add-ons and has so much diverse content that it can be hard to use – particularly to sift through everything that turns up in your feed and notifications to find what you want. It can be very hard to find past contributions and discussions, and even when a discussion is currently active it can be hard to find what you are looking for in between all the Farmville notifications, birthday calendar invitations and holiday pictures from your friends. Yes, you can specifically navigate to your page or group – but that’s an extra effort that most users don’t make – they generally only look at their feed.

4. Mixing the work and pleasure. Much as I have advocated for living out loud, I don’t think everyone is ready for that yet – but using Facebook for work purposes might bring your colleagues closer to your private life than you might think. They may now be tempted to browse your profile, look at your holiday photos, see what you are reading and what games you are playing etc. even if you are not “friends”. Here it’s not your group’s privacy settings but your own. (I know that whatever you put on Facebook might eventually be seen by your employer – but I can see from some colleagues/friends feeds that they haven’t realized this yet!)

5. Despite all the features it does have, it’s missing a few critical ones such as the ability to easily share and collaborate on files, or having tools such as wikis. Although Facebook pages have some good analytics and other useful tools, it doesn’t have all the kind of features that a community manager needs for managing interactions and memberships (although every tool out there has functionality weaknesses of some sort or other).

It’s not that I don’t like Facebook. It has a number of useful features that can be valuable support you in your work – but you might be better off using something else for your work related communities of practice, especially internally focused ones.

Just to show I’m not totally down on Facebook, here are a few examples of where it can be very useful:

1. It’s a great “address book” to help keep track of all the various people you have befriended and worked with over your career. It can be hard to keep up with people and keep track of where they are, especially if you move a lot,but Facebook is great to help you do this, and to maintain your “weak ties” with people you don’t regularly interact with so you can find them again later if you might need them (and vice versa).

2. It’s good for serendipitous news sharing – I often find interesting and sometimes useful things from my friends Facebook feeds and the pages I follow. I prefer twitter for this, but the user base for both platforms is slightly different and so it’s certain;y useful to use both.

And combining 1. and 2. it can sometimes e a great way of making an important work connection. I recall once shortly after the Haiti Earthquake I was able to connect two different parts of UNICEF one who was requesting a supply and anther that had access to it – just through spotting the connection in my feed (and this is the type of connection that usually doesn’t happen in closed communities of practice but can happen through the more open social web).

3. It’s a great tool for publicity and marketing and engaging with a community of external supporters such as volunteers, supporters, potential donors etc. to get them involved in your work and to get their views. There’s lots written on this elsewhere so I won’t.

It’s also great for all the personal social fun stuff you do on Facebook. Just don’t ask me to recommend it for a work related community of practice.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 7, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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