Systems & complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.2.5): Creating short, cost-effective feedback loops

This article is part of section 3.2 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.

A third approach is to improve feedback between actual performance and future implementation by ensuring it is grounded in short, quick loops, based in solid incentive structures. For example, in the management of CPR1, the choice of monitors is crucial: the trust required to support and transform collaborative institutions is difficult to build on large scales2. Also, regular monitoring by individuals or organisations with the capacity to impose informal sanctions is possibly the most crucial factor in determining whether arrangements have succeeded in managing resources sustainably.

Essentially, this is about judicious use of participatory M&E3 approaches and transparency initiatives. Keeping monitoring at the ground level ensures that monitors have a strong appreciation of the local dynamics and reasonable expectations about what can be done in a context; putting monitoring information in the hands of those who stand to benefit from the intervention ensures feedback loops are short and strong. Participatory M&E involves ‘methods where the primary stakeholders of an intervention […] are active participants [taking] the lead in tracking and making sense of progress towards achievement of […] results at local level, drawing actionable conclusions’ 4. If used correctly, these methods offer a quick, relatively cheap way of gathering the necessary information about performance, thereby achieving ‘appropriate imprecision’ 5.

Moreover, there are some exciting developments in local-level methods for participatory involvement in the governance of implementation. International NGOs6 and other agencies have achieved startling success by building CSOs’ 7 capacities in methods such as participatory budgeting, participatory expenditure and service delivery monitoring and participatory budget tracking8. One particularly relevant subgroup is methods for beneficiary feedback. This is a ‘systematic approach to collecting the views of […] key stakeholders about the quality and impact of work undertaken by an […] agency, generating quantitative data’ 9. These have the potential to achieve success in some contexts – for example, a randomised controlled trial (RCT) attributed large, concrete changes in service delivery to the facilitated use of report cards and public meetings10,11. With initiatives beginning to explore the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) such as SMS to scale these methods up, they could prove invaluable in the future.

Transparency and accountability initiatives designed to put relevant information in the hands of local people are also mushrooming, and have been shown to increase the responsiveness and improve the delivery of services in some contexts12,13. Just the release of information can put in place new feedback loops and change incentives substantially. Another RCT14 shows that a newspaper campaign to publish information about monthly transfers of funds under an education capitation grant scheme managed to improve enrolment and change a situation whereby schools received only 20% of funds to one where they received an average of more than 80%. Also, rapid feedback indicators (for example daily updated information on food prices in local markets) have shown to be significant tools in improving community development and generating sustainable cities, informing interventions but also allowing individuals, agencies and businesses to make the best choices for their own actions15.

Many of these tools are just being examined in mainstream development practice, and there has not been the chance to assess comprehensively their real, long-term value or the factors that facilitate their effectiveness. It will be important to draw lessons from past experience with participatory tools and to pay attention to context, as – just like with any other tool – they are likely to reflect the political economy of application. The insights of the previous section about genuine collaboration and equitable relationships must be heeded in order for these to be able to deliver the desired benefits.

Next part (section 3.2.6): Accountability for learning.

See also these related series:

Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Common Pool Resources.
  2. Ostrom, E. (2010). ‘A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change.’ Policy Research Working Paper 5095. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  3. Monitoring & Evaluation.
  4. Hilhorst, D. and Guijt, I. (2006). ‘Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation a Process to Support Governance and Empowerment at the Local Level.’ Guidance Paper. Amsterdam: KIT.
  5. Chambers R. (1983). Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London: Zed Books.
  6. Non-Government Organisations.
  7. Civil Society Organisations.
  8. Chambers, R. (2008). Revolutions in Development Inquiry. London: Earthscan.
  9. Jacobs, A. (2010). ‘Creating the Missing Feedback Loop.’ IDS Bulletin.
  10. Bjorkman, M. and Svensson, J. (2009). ‘Power to the People: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment on Community Monitoring in Uganda.’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(2): 735-769.
  11. The RCT attributed the following results: service delivery improved with waiting times decreased, absenteeism plummeted, clinics were used more, 40-50% more children vaccinated, 33% fewer children under five died.
  12. McGee, R. and Gaventa, J., with Barrett, G., Calland, R., Carlitz, R., Joshi, A. and Acosta, A., (2010). ‘Review of Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives: Synthesis Report.’ Brighton: IDS.
  13. The authors’ note that the mechanisms through which transparency are thought to lead to accountability are on the whole untested, but this is largely because many initiatives are relatively new.
  14. Reinikka, R. and Svensson, J. (2005). ‘The Power of Information: Evidence from a Newspaper Campaign to Reduce Capture’. Working paper. Stockholm: IIES, Stockholm University.
  15. Innes, J. and Booher, D. (2000). ‘Indicators for Sustainable Communities: A Strategy Building on Complexity Theory and Distributed Intelligence.’ Planning Theory & Practice 1(2): 173-186.
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Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

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