Listening and feedback mechanisms
This week I came across the “Feedback Mechanisms in International Assistance Organizations” report by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, based on research undertaken by the Listening Project and funded by the Gates Foundation.
The findings and recommendations are very intuitive and it’s nice to have them gathered in one place. The report can serve as a starting point or a pause-and-reflect moment for organizations working specifically on humanitarian accountability as well as those who are looking to integrate better ‘downward’ or beneficiary feedback into development or humanitarian work overall. It also offers good food for thought for those interested in crowd sourcing and the use of new technology for citizen engagement and input.
The report is not too long, and it’s easily laid out for a quick read, so I’d recommend downloading the .pdf and digesting it fully.
To whet your appetite, here are some points I found interesting:
Why do agencies seek recipient feedback?
Four reasons were identified in the report: to improve accountability, to improve effectiveness, to respond to donor requirements or media pressure, and to increase security for staff. Feedback from recipients* was seen to give staff the fuel needed to pressure higher-ups for necessary changes in programming; beneficiary feedback often improved program quality and recipient satisfaction, and seeking dialogue and communication with communities tended to reduce threats of violence. When accountability was a donor requirement but wasn’t part of a larger organizational buy-in or value, unsurprisingly, initiatives were less successful.
To many reading this post or who may read the CDA report, the benefits of participation and feedback and accountability are already obvious, nonetheless it’s good to see them captured and documented in a report as a support to those who are trying to establish accountability and transparency mechanisms in less-friendly or convinced atmospheres.
Other key points (any quotes come directly from the report):
- All practitioners interviewed for the study “expressed their unequivocal commitment to participatory and inclusive approaches to humanitarian and development work, and placed significant emphasis on accountability mechanisms.” In addition, many organizations have signed different charters and standards including SPHERE Guidelines, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Standard in Accountability and Quality Management and the INGO Accountability Charter. This rather contradicts the impression the media often likes to give about aid agencies as being totally unaccountable to anyone. Or maybe certain parts of aid agencies are more interested and prone to seek accountability and transparency than others.
- The report says, however, that there are still issues with continuous feedback loops and information doesn’t always return from whence it came. “Typically information gathered from primary stakeholders flows through different parts of organizations, but decisions are rarely communicated back to communities.” One could also ask how often this feedback (or similarly, any information, or data) is returned to communities in accessible formats so that they can use it as well for their own purposes.
- Good accountability mechanisms are not possible without management buy-in or staff competency. Managers play a critical role in “creating incentives and requirements for field staff to regularly solicit and utilize feedback.” Organizations need to invest in the skills necessary to ensure honest feedback can happen at community level, and/or among the various people and organizations involved (community members, CBOs, local partners, local staff, management staff, headquarters, government, etc).
- Different agencies are working to develop frameworks to improve feedback and accountability mechanisms. “Some of these new approaches have built-in mechanisms for integrating recipient voices into program strategies and operations.” Some organizations have been collecting primary stakeholder feedback and sharing information with recipients for years as part of participatory development processes. However, the report says, often the exercises are very focused on individual projects or towards particular practical results and the richness of the feedback is not fully appreciated or systematically fed into broader decision-making processes. ”The practices of systematically listening to, gathering and analyzing people’s perspectives, recommendations and complaints have not become routine in many agencies.”
- Feedback mechanisms need to be designed together with recipients. “Mechanisms must also be appropriate to the specific contexts where they are intended to operate, and agencies have to consider the most appropriate name for the [system], channels, and methods for raising complaints, and culturally appropriate ways of responding.” This is especially important in tense environments or with people who are not accustomed to voicing their opinions.
- Trust is important, and according to the report is “the first step in getting meaningful feedback. Providing information about the goals and expectations of the organization is the first step in building trust…. Organizations need to establish systematic procedures for reviewing, investigating and responding to feedback or complaints. All this needs to occur in a consistent, timely manner for people to believe in the system and use it.” My own experience with children and youth participation initiatives, has taught me it’s also critical to discuss and agree on clear and honest expectations about what can and will be done with the feedback, and the degree to which feedback will actually be able to change a situation. This goes back to the report’s point on management buy-in and institutional systems. Unless your organization really wants to hear the feedback, is willing to change itself or its actions or viewpoints to respond to the feedback, and has the internal capacity to respond and modify how it’s doing things, asking people what they think can be really tricky and potentially demoralizing for all involved. It’s never nice to hear people say “why did you ask us if you didn’t want to know” or “what is the point of knowing what we think if you’re not going to change?”
- New and emerging approaches are being tested, including those that use innovative tools and technologies such as SMS and social media. However, the same principles apply to these new technologies as to any other type of feedback loop, and it’s clear that there are still challenges with new technologies. As mentioned earlier in the report “Most organizations that were successful in gathering feedback… and distributing information back… found it necessary to have more than one mechanism in place…in order to provide options for all of the different groups within the local community to provide feedback and to get information.” This is especially true with new technologies, given the large numbers of people left out of feedback loops due to cost, literacy, age, gender, and access if only SMS or social media are used. Specific challenges with new technologies are highlighted in the report, such as the case of Haiti where an SMS service was set up and people were very willing to use it, “but the agencies had not incorporated a way to monitor the replies and feedback. This resulted in some frustrations and a lost opportunity for a feedback loop between recipient and aid agencies.”
Read the full report here.
*I’m not a big fan of the terms ‘recipient’ and ‘beneficiary’ but have used them here because they are the terms used in the report.
Ian Thorpe does a good job of commenting some of the portions of the report I didn’t expand on: ”Listening to the people we work for“