Participatory learning groups in an aid bureaucracy

Participatory learning groups in an aid bureaucracy

Tips for creating effective learning groups within aid bureaucracies

This paper narrates the process of establishing and running two participatory learning groups in the Swedish official development agency, Sida: one in the Stockholm headquarters, and one in the Embassy of Sweden in Nairobi. It looks at how opportunities to reflect on everyday working practice can be built into the organisational structure of an aid bureaucracy, and at how values such as participation, ownership, partnership and accountability can exist within these settings.

The paper reports on the way the actual process developed, commenting on the constant tension between providing a predictable and goal-oriented structure (the format that most aid agency personnel were familiar with and some were most comfortable with) and allowing sufficient flexibility and space for creative innovation and the pursuit of unexpected avenues and activities.

The authors also reflect on lessons learnt which have a potential for wider application, and comes up with 10 tips for effective learning groups:

  • Compose the group with care, with attention to the "side effects" that learning groups can have on relationships: intradepartmental groups can create better team working; inter-departmental/organisational groups can create better partnership working and understanding of complexity;"vertical slice" groups can promote better understanding at different levels. All can create tensions. Direct line management relationships can complicate and need to be carefully negotiated or might be avoided.
  • Be clear from the beginning who is going to do what and why, and be prepared to revisit this regularly throughout the process.
  • Establish ground rules to guide the group, including how the group presents itself to the organisation, rules for producing and sharing documents, rules for the involvement of external resource people, rules for meetings, sharing, confidentiality, new members, language and process style and rules for changing the rules.
  • Take account of participants’ learning styles and try to mix activities that are "familiar"and those that are more daring, unusual or creative – it can be worth pushing people to do something different.
  • Make the time to pause and reflect on what’s happening within the group – "in the moment" – especially around differences in position, style or perspective, rather than switching focus or skimming over potential areas of conflict: rich lessons can be learnt from working with diversity.
  • Pay attention to how the group is represented within the organisation: learning needs legitimacy and validation, so managers may need updates to be kept on board and communication is a vital activity.
  • Reflect on and explore who takes the lead and how it might be best supported, devolved or shared within the group. Different kinds of leadership functions might be shared amongst a number of group members, and shift over time: remaining alert to these shifts, and fostering transfers of leadership, can be productive for learning and dynamics.
  • Set clear parameters at the beginning, such as meeting length and frequency, a beginning and end to the process and clarity about functions and roles, but be prepared to change them – balancing clarity and structure with an ability to adapt and respond is critical.
  • Think about outputs at the beginning and try to link products with processes: be prepared to think out of the box and allow groups to find the form and function that suits what they’ve been doing, rather than default reports or briefings.
  • Consider a symbolic ending which frees up energy for going forward with new things, and identification of what might be regarded as closed or completed, and what needs to be continued.
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