“We’ve Opened Pandora’s Box!” Responding to Unsolicited Feedback

February 23, 2017 | Sarah Cechvala

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– In this post, Sarah Cechvala, an expert on aid accountability and feedback loops as well as responsible business practice at CDA, addresses the practical challenges related to analyzing, responding to, and utilizing open-ended feedback from communities. In response to the burgeoning emphasis on accountability and local ownership in the humanitarian and development sectors, we have seen organizations adopt more deliberate approaches to collecting community feedback. Yet, what happens when this feedback “doesn’t fit” within our prescribed lines of inquiry or is broader than our programmatic objectives or operational mandate? Making sense of where and how unsolicited feedback fits into our organizational directives can feel insurmountable, but often is essential for effective practices. –

The gaping crevice snaked its way up the cold cement walls to a ceiling propped up by two feeble wooden polls. The structure seemed so fragile that a single sneeze might dismantle its very foundation. And yet, despite the conditions of the Nepali school, the laughter of the children it housed was palpable as was their enthusiasm to answer my questions. Ready to talk. Eager to share their concerns and opinions. I paused, as I realized that my questions about feedback mechanisms might not be met with the answers I had expected; but rather, by those that expose and accentuate the grimmer realities about the basic infrastructure surrounding us.

Every day, aid and development practitioners working with communities in fragile contexts face competing agendas – the one defined by their programs and organizations, and the one defined by the communities they support. And while we know that the most effective programming is often found in the marriage of these two, we also know that the aid paradigm is commonly defined by the priorities of donors and headquarters. Of late, however, the humanitarian and development sectors have experienced a discernible and growing emphasis on accountability to communities and effective feedback practices. The hope here is that feedback mechanisms can offer a critical reality check, quality control, and accountability to agency activities.

The type of feedback one hears, however, depends, in part, on what questions one asks. Methods for eliciting community feedback are often limited to predetermined questions defined by program objectives set by donors and organizations, and their priorities. Feedback from the community, however usually does not follow such delimitations, which leaves many practitioners to ask: How do we reconcile community requests, inquiries, and needs when they do not align with programmatic directives?

I sympathize with my colleagues who find themselves in similar situations as myself – asking questions about the utility of community feedback in a setting where the basic infrastructure is crumbling. As a field manager once asked me:

How am I to discuss [with community members] the programming they want in their schools, when their schools are damaged and still not safe for students to attend class?” 

What about big-picture feedback?

Unsolicited feedback, or feedback that falls outside the scope of an inquiry, is commonly the most challenging to address, and yet can offer valuable information for the organization’s operations.

“Big picture” feedback, as it is sometimes called, may appear irrelevant and indiscriminate, but when aggregated and analyzed over time, can provide insights and explanations for strategic issues, contextual appropriateness, or even intended and unintended impacts of programming. While often overshadowed by programmatic issues, this information offers clues that when assembled can create a broader picture of the context in which the agency is working.

For staff on the frontline with communities, responding to and utilizing unsolicited feedback can be seen as arduous, and in some cases, unmanageable. Sentiments of disenfranchisement can also inhibit staff from trying to work with and utilize this type of data. Without processes to capture, analyze, and address unsolicited feedback, staff can feel that the only recourse is to either knowingly provide an unsatisfactory response, or avoid responding completely.

During a recent field visit, I watched staffs’ aversion to delivering ‘bad news’ to community members stifle acknowledgement and response practices. In the absence of a feedback system designed to capture and utilize unsolicited feedback, staff felt overwhelmed and unable to manage much of the feedback they received from communities. One staff member said to me, “With the [new feedback system], we opened Pandora’s box, and we cannot respond to all of it.”

Another staff member noted, “When feedback is not confined to the services provided, it builds the expectations and the hopes of the community. The [new feedback system] is doing this!”

We know, however, that response is a fundamental element to closing the feedback loop, regardless of the level of community satisfaction with the response.In this case, antipathy toward responding encumbered the relationship between the organization and community and eroded trust. One community member explained to me,

“When they [staff] don’t respond, we feel that they do not take our feedback seriously.”

How can staff respond immediately?

Identifying the most appropriate way to respond to “big picture” feedback can be challenging. Yet, there are ways for staff to respond immediately and in the long-term to this type of feedback. Straightaway, staff can:

  • offer an explanation as to why the agency cannot fulfill the request;
  • clarify what the organization can and cannot do; and
  • explain the external referral system for unsolicited feedback.

How can organizations respond in the long-term?

Short-term responses, however, do not eliminate the need for organizational systems to manage data and institutional processes that refer information to internal and to external counterparts.

Equipping staff to manage unsolicited feedback might require organizations to:

  • institute a feedback registry that houses “big picture feedback” and ensure that it is periodically reviewed, and that data is analyzed and shared with the appropriate decision-makers;
  • provide staff with information about how to respond to questions that fall within and outside the scope of the organization’s programs and remit;
  • empower staff to use this information to address or reconcile issues on-the-spot;
  • build staff’s listening, responding, and recording skills in order to bolster their confidence and abilities to capture incoming feedback; and
  • place staff with appropriate analysis skills in roles that will enable them to identify patterns in feedback and distill the information into action plans.

In addition, external referral systems require strong linkages to others operating in the context (including other organizations, the government, local partners, community leaders etc.). Developing internal systems to register, track, validate, monitor, and then transfer various information can fundamentally improve the organization’s effectiveness while simultaneously addressing larger community needs. Consistent feedback should be triangulated with other data points and shared with the appropriate decision-makers who can make programmatic or organizational alterations, or transferred to externals who are better placed to address those issues.

During my experience in Nepal, we heard ongoing concerns about

infrastructure, much like the trepidations about the collapsing school. The team I was traveling with noted that this feedback presents a genuine and significant community need. Coupling this feedback with other data points (such as the sluggish governmental response to these issues and the curtailing of international response efforts a year after the 2015 earthquake), may help to make the case for shifting the organizational agenda toward infrastructure reconstruction, or support advocacy efforts to other agencies or the government to focus their efforts on those issues.

An image from CDA-ALNAP guidance depicts the challenge of “what to do with this feedback when it just doesn’t seem to fit.”

The illustration (seen here) portrays a practitioner trying to fit a circle into a square hole. Making sense of where and how unsolicited feedback fits into our organizational operations and directives may seem insurmountable. However, pausing to identify patterns across this feedback can enhance our contextual understanding and augment our ability to work effectively.

In fact, over the course of our learning about feedback loops, we have noticed that the most effective feedback mechanisms are those that start by gathering and responding to day-to-day feedback, but also have ways to identify and use broader community feedback.

About this article

We value your comments, questions, and insights. Please feel free to post your comments to this blog, or to contact the author at [email protected] with your reactions or suggestions for further research or discussion. Subscribe to our newsletter, here, to be notified of new blog posts, and studies once they are made public.

You might also be interested in reading the case studies this blog post draws from:

And Sarah’s last blog post: Where Should the Feedback Function Sit? Determining the Institutional Location for the feedback function.

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About the author(s)

Sarah Cechvala is a Senior Program Manager at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. Her learning and advisory focus is on conflict-sensitivity, accountability and feedback loops, and conflict-sensitive business practice and corporate social impacts. Sarah has facilitated collaborative learning processes and field research in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Recently, she led several case studies in EthiopiaPakistan, and Nepal focused on feedback utilization in long-term development programs. She holds an MA from Georgetown University and a BA from Boston University.



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