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Balancing Results-Based Management with People-Based Processes

I decided to postpone the second blog on the ten key issues about (development) communication in favor of an issue that emerged during the XI United Nations Round Table (UNRT) on Communication for Development (C4D). The UN Round Tables began in 1988 as an inter-agency ‘professional consultation mechanism on communication for development.’ During the early stages, this event was restricted to a few actors, but it gradually opened up to broader participation, even outside the UN system.

The XI Round Table on C4D took place in Washington DC on March 11 – 13, 2009 and was hosted at the World Bank by the Development Communication Division, in partnership with UNDP, through the Oslo Governance Center. The overarching theme of this event was the mainstreaming of C4D in development policies and practices in the UN system (and possibly also in the broader setting). Two issues were identified as key in this respect: 1) developing and/or enhancing a common framework to monitor and evaluate the impact of communication in a rigorous manner, and 2) promoting the institutionalization of C4D in UN agencies through a number of strategic actions.

Without going into too many details on the work and the deliberations of the XI Round Table, I would like to reflect on  the overall tone and focus of this event. First let me mention that not only have I been directly involved in four of these Round Tables, but I have also been following and studying them extensively as part of my dissertation research. Their development seems to closely resemble my own professional path, since they have been increasingly shifting their focus from communication products to communication processes, and from one-way persuasion to two-way participation.

My career started in the field of mass communications, working for a major Italian public television network. Next I was hired by a major corporation to develop learning programs through media and advanced information technologies. As time went by, I became increasingly aware of the limitation of media in changing behaviors. But the real change of heart occurred when I got my first international assignment and I was posted in the Middle East, working mostly in West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At that point I went through what can be labeled a ‘cognitive dissonance’ process. I soon realized that many of the theories I studied and the beliefs I held on media and information technologies were clashing with the reality I encountered in my daily work.

I realized that media had seldom, if ever, the capacity to change people’s attitudes and behaviors, unless there was already an ‘enabling environment.’ While working in that situation of open conflict and mistrust, I realized that the only way to create that enabling environment was to find ways to use communication to build trust among different stakeholders, to assess the situation and to seek a broad consensus towards best course of actions. Of course, this is easier said than done, but in my experience, it is also the only way to achieve sustainable results.

It was extremely rewarding to hear so many representatives at the UNRT emphasizing that the focus of communication at country level should be to ensure country ownership, and at local level facilitate stakeholders’ participation, empowerment and transparency. There was a broad consensus among participants of the Round Table that even while keeping the focus on results, C4D should place an equal emphasis on the process. Real sustainable change can only happen when every major player is part of the decision-making process leading to that change, and the only way to make that happen is to use two-way communication to open up public spaces for dialogue where to confront ideas, explore options and decide on best course of action.

This is why the core conception of C4D needs to be broadened, moving beyond the common vision of messages, media and linear persuasion, towards the adoption of dialogic communication methods and tools to promote change in partnership with local stakeholders. Even when striving for short-term results, C4D should be about giving voice to the voiceless and facilitating the empowerment of people, especially the marginalized ones. C4D is not only about knowledge and skills, but it is also about commitment and, as one of the UNRT participants put it, ‘the dignity of how we work.’

Photo Credit: Flickr user star5112

Comments

Submitted by Jim on
Truly communication has an added value to every development program, however, there are still some institutions even governments that play down the importance of communication as an important part of any program that they implement and trust the project management's staff (most without competent communication training) to implement public relations or communications campaign.

Submitted by Peter da Costa on
I fully agree that the focus on results should not be so obsessive as to lose the enduring value of Communication for Development (C4D), namely its ability to facilitate and promote engagement between real people and communities, as a process. The World Bank's Development Communication team has been quite successful in selling this to the Bank mandarins, but on the basis of communication’s ability to help deliver concrete results, not on the basis of communication as a process. The array of tools and innovations your team has developed (communication-based assessment, etc) and the concrete proposals it has made towards integrating communication into the Bank’s operations provide others with a strong basis for making the case in their respective agencies. As with the Bank, the reality in the UN system and in other inter-governmental organizations is that convincing the higher-ups about communication as a process is a hard sell. They want to see concrete deliverables. The Round Table is a nice place where friends meet to share ideas and forge collaboration. It has grown organically and is in a good place right now in terms of its broadened participation and the level of sophistication of its thinking. That said, it is fair to say its impact on communication thinking and practice in the UN system has been limited. I would even go so far as saying that the World Congress on C4D made more impact that the many years of RTs. Part of the problem is the dysfunctional nature of the UN system, which we all understand. But part of it is that we have not been able as communicators to find tangible ways of embedding C4D into the systems and processes of the UN – something you at the Bank have done well to achieve. In researching the assignment for OECD on communicating results it occurred to me that results, however prone to instrumentalization, are providing an unprecedented entry point for C4D in OECD. Given that the UN system is similarly obsessed with managing for development results (MfDR), focusing on communicating results could be a way of getting communicators a seat at the table. In February I presented by background paper on managing and communicating development results at the Joint Venture on MfDR as well as to OECD aid agency communicators. I made a strong case for the inseparability of communicating about results and communicating for results – the former being external relations-type communication aimed at donor publics, and the latter being what we call C4D. The JV MfDR has now included an operational task on ‘Improving Results Reporting in Donor Agencies’ in its new program of work, as I am sure Steffen Beitz, co-ordinator of the OECD DevCom network, will have told the RT. Among other things, this will allow the DevCom network to undertake pilots in selected countries on how to integrate C4D into projects/ programs, especially those involving budget support or sector wide approaches – identified as a major challenge for results communication. To me, this opens a big door to demonstrate the value-added of C4D, and provides an important lesson for the UN system as it seeks to be more effective on the ground. Ultimately, no one can shake our conviction that C4D is about people, and that the process is as valuable as the outcome and impact. The challenge is finding ways to sell this credo to others.

The primary barrier to effective communication between the UN agencies in particular, and communities affected by development activities is the language used by the UN, even internally. As someone who works frequently with field staff of donor agencies, implementing partners and with partner communities, to demythologize the language of results-based management, I frequently see how the confusion generated by the bureaucratic jargon often used in RBM, can distract and dishearten even the best field staff, and their most enthusiastic partners. But I have also seen how breaking this down into relatively simple concepts and language - without development jargon - can work to excite people about the real results they are often achieving, and to make them eager to report them. After 15 years of trying to help people sort through the different RBM frameworks that are used by donors, I have come to the conclusion that the bottom line is this: The more complex and detailed the results based management frameworks become, the less chance they will be used effectively. The simpler they can be made, the more relevant they will become to the people on the sharp end of development programming, and ultimately to the donor agencies which want people to achieve results, and then report on them. So I suggest we resist the temptation to make the results frameworks more complex.

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