I was in Helsinki last week for a presentation and discussion at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This was part of the yearly Studia Generalia, a series of seminars organised by the Ministry and the Finnish Society for Development Research where researchers have the opportunity to meet staff of the Ministry and discuss various aspects of development cooperation and development policy. The title of my presentation was Adaptive programming at scale: three challenges and three possible solutions.
Since I live now in Finland, it was a great opportunity to also hear about adaptive programming in the Finnish development cooperation.
The main point of my presentation was that programmes with a large budget, large implementing teams, operating in a complex context, and tackling wicked hard problems, etc. can struggle more than smaller programmes to apply the principles of adaptive programming.
The challenges are:
1) The challenge of governance and management: large programmes plan activities usually over 12 months and submit the plan to a Steering Committee for approval. A lot of work goes into doing that as well as in the approval process. To make changes afterwards it is not easy, and programmes tend to stick to the plan. Possible solutions could be detailed plans covering less than 12 months or the moving budgets across financial years.
2) The challenge of skills within the team: large programmes tend go through an inception period where most of the programme team is hired. This is done before knowing what specific problems the programme will address and how. Some roles are needed by default: finance management, grants management, communication, etc. Other roles, however, are more linked to the pilots and experimentations that the programme will conduct during its implementation which are not known at the beginning. There are experiences with flexible contracting modalities that show that for specific policy experiments it is possible to get the team on board with the right networks and political skills.
3) The challenge of monitoring and learning: an adaptive approach requires a learning culture within the programme team because without learning and good monitoring it is difficult to generate the knowledge and information that can help to change course, adapt activities, or stop policy experiments that do not work. Investing in developing that learning culture is important.
We had a nice and interesting discussion around these challenges and some possible solutions for about one hour. Here my three main takeaways:
1) Bilateral programmes funded through the Finnish development cooperation have a good degree of flexibility embedded in design and implementation. The programme design document is not considered as set in stone. If the evidence is there, changes to the design and implementation plans are possible. This flexibility is included in the description of the role and function of the Steering Committees established to oversee programmes at country level. This is a good foundation.
2) Not all activities in large programmes are likely to require an adaptive approach. A mapping of key activities can help to identify which ones require an experimental and iterative approach and which ones do not. This can then be reflected in the annual plans where experimental activities can be only sketched, while other activities can be described in more detail.
3) Finland is known internationally for it experimental approach to public policies. The Universal Basic Income has caught the international media attention. The Prime Minister’s Office has set up the Experimental Finland web page. There is scope, I think, to bring that experimental culture into development policy and programming. This is in addition of having pilots within programmes. It is about designing small experimental projects which address wicked hard problems, and which can be scaled up at later stage based on the evidence and learning acquired through the experimentation. There is more that can be explored in this area, linking, for example, to the insights from the growth of start-ups in which Finland has also considerable experience.