The Right Smart Feasible Thing To Do

November 3, 2015 | Isabella Jean

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FeedbackLabs organized an excellent Summit on Oct 15th and 16th.  The Summit brought together feedback experts, leading thinkers, practitioners, and philanthropists to think jointly, creatively, and pragmatically about the promises, challenges, successes, and opportunities in closing feedback loops in aid and philanthropy. Feedback Labs defines itself as a growing network of policy, advocacy, service, funding, and technology groups who jointly explore how feedback loops from constituents can be the:

  • Right thing – morally and ethically;
  • Smart thing – yielding better outcomes and impact; and
  • Feasible thing – being able to implement and act on feedback as part of regular practice.

TEWA (Nepal), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Accountability Labs, and CDA were invited to share lessons and reflections on ‘Accountability to Affected People: Feedback in Humanitarian Contexts.’ We discussed why the current push for accountability and feedback loops is more promising than its predecessors. We considered unique characteristics of feedback in a humanitarian response along with innovations and achievements that others can learn from, noting also some cautionary lessons. I shared a synthesis of CDA’s lessons drawn from past and recent case studies and from CDA’s advisory work with organizations who seek to improve their feedback practices. Below are some of my talking points.

So, what does it take for an organization to have effective feedback loops in humanitarian response?

There isn’t a magic solution that instantly delivers effective feedback loops. Good practice requires an intentional process and a set of actions, which include the following:

Leaders who act on commitments, allocate resources, invest in learning, model feedback loops inside and outside their organization, enable course-correction, and create incentives for staff to close the feedback loop.

Competent staff with specific skills sets, including:

  • Listening skills, which includes knowing how to listen and respond in a respectful and constructive manner;
  • Dialogue and facilitation skills for difficult conversations;
  • Problem-solving skills (and mindsets!) for testing solutions and adapting programs;
  • Analytical skills (analysis of patterns and trends, data dis/aggregation, sense-making);
  • Effective communication skills for conveying feedback, and the ability to explain its significance to internal and external audiences and users to enable its utilization.

Flexibility and power to change. Change is about exercising our agency, responsibility, power, and authority. When thinking about change, we should ask ourselves: Are we willing to change? What is our margin for flexibility and does it need to change? What else do we need to understand before we adapt our programs? What are the barriers to change? Are they insurmountable or simply uncomfortable to challenge? What are we afraid of? What are the factors that contribute to the feeling of disempowerment and resignation when change is what is needed in our very own programs and organizations?

What are some of the institutional challenges in enabling feedback loops?

Organizational structures can be disabling. There are unhelpful divisions between the development and humanitarian “arms” in some organizations and the lessons learned during emergencies are rarely fully absorbed by other teams working to improve accountability. Despite the increased interest in response to common standards, complaints and feedback mechanisms are all too often associated with “compliance.” Rather, establishing effective feedback loops requires a clear understanding of the organizational landscape (think of it as your internal institutional context analysis!), which may include:

  • How are decisions made in the organization at different levels (field, country, HQ)?
  • What are the lines of accountability and responsibility?
  • Who needs to hear what, in what format, with what frequency?
  • What are the incentive structures that will support closing the feedback loop?

Integrating feedback practices into existing organizational systems and processes is not always a straightforward process. Some of this has to do with struggles to ensure complementarity and to decrease redundancy between M&E, feedback, and other forms of data gathered. Other challenges have to do with the capacity to absorb, make-sense of, and share large volumes of information in a timely fashion and in a meaningful way. Improving analytical capacity of individual staff and program teams requires:

  • Resource investments and prioritization of capacity development;
  • Problem-solving, which requires a level of decentralized decision-making (program/frontline staff being able to respond, solve, and adapt on a daily basis); and
  • Analysis of patterns and trends to inform organizational policy, strategy, and re-design.

Several factors give me optimism that we are going to make real strides on feedback loops in future humanitarian responses. The humanitarian sector is changing and responding to calls for meaningful community engagement, demonstrated accountability and for a significant role entrusted to local actors. The discourse is shifting from normative principles to application of lessons, industry standards and practical approaches. Technological innovations can and do complement the tried and true “low-tech” methods for dialogue, conversation, and joint problem-solving. CDA will continue to support the learning and application of lessons in this practice area and we invite practitioners to share what they are learning with us and others in the sector.

New Resource!  CDA partnered with Disaster Ready to develop a new e-learning course based on ALNAP-CDA Practitioner Guidance: “Closing the Loop: Effective Feedback Mechanisms in Humanitarian Contexts.”  This e-learning course will introduce you to key findings and guidance points useful for establishing effective feedback mechanisms in humanitarian settings. The course highlights lessons from operational teams who have demonstrated good practices with feedback analysis and feedback utilization in program modification and decision-making. Length: approximately 45 minutes.

About the author(s)

Isabella Jean is Co-Director of Collaborative Learning at CDA. She has led field-based collaborative learning and research efforts with international and local organizations in Africa, Asia, Caucasus, and the Middle East. Based on findings from CDA’s Listening Project, Isabella Jean co-authored a book on cumulative impacts of international assistance “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid.” Isabella’s research and advisory work focuses on conflict-sensitive aid, peacebuilding effectiveness, participatory program design, monitoring and evaluation methods, accountability, and feedback loops.


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