October 2016|bsi|

A few months ago, passengers travelling on a major airline linking the USA with West Africa reported a steady deterioration in service. A series of flights were cancelled and others delayed, leaving passengers on their way to Liberia stranded in Ghana for a day or more. The airline appeared to be putting its oldest planes on the West African routes and they were breaking down a lot. Passengers started to complain, and the Liberian Civil Aviation Administration announced that the government would no longer buy tickets on the airline.

Fortunately, there are several airlines offering connecting flights, so passengers had the option to switch. The airline realised this, and reacted to the government’s announcement by speeding up the refurbishment of their aircraft. Anecdotal evidence suggests the delays have started to come down.

This is how feedback works.  A business gets some things right, gets some things wrong, and its customers tell it how to get better. If the business doesn’t listen to the feedback, the customers take their custom elsewhere.

Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often find it harder to get that kind of feedback. They are not set up to listen to it, and their beneficiaries have less incentive to give it. Yet feedback is even more important for them than it is for businesses, because they often have a monopoly on certain kinds of services, so the customers don’t have an option of voting with their feet when things go wrong.

The Africa Governance Initiative is an NGO that works with government, so we pay special attention to feedback. We believe that feedback is essential to learning how we are doing and ultimately doing it better. There are many kinds of feedback, but in this post we consider three: feedback within a team or organization; feedback from project beneficiaries to donors; and feedback from citizens to governments.

It is relatively easy to get feedback if you are within the same team or organization. In small companies or start-ups, feedback is immediate and informal process. In large organisations, it’s more structured, typically linked to an appraisal every six or twelve months. AGI is a start-up, but a lot of our staff come from consulting firms or the civil service, so we try to do both. For a country head or manager, that means collecting feedback on every team member every six months; but after a particularly difficult meeting it also gives us the right to ask: “How did that go? What do you think we could do differently next time?”

One thing we find is that positive feedback is important, and often neglected – either by being forgotten entirely or by being used as part of the “feedback sandwich“. For example, in Liberia we helped set up a monthly meeting at which the President’s Delivery Unit briefs President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on the progress of her priority projects. The President has high standards, so on the occasions she has complimented them on their good work, the lift is palpable.

The feedback that development partners get from beneficiaries is a trickier category. The tone of the feedback depends a lot on whether the partner is a donor, implementing organization or employs primarily local, as opposed to international, staff. It can be difficult for outsiders to assess what is really going on. For example, a friend used to run a farming business in Liberia. Whenever he took investors to visit the farms, the women who worked there made a special effort to impress: they put on their Sunday best, sang while they worked and showed the visitors how empowered and productive they were. He didn’t ask or pay extra them to do this – they did it naturally. Liberians like to put on a show for donors or investors. Showing hospitality to visitors is an important cultural norm and, in an aid-dependent country, it helps keep the money flowing.

However, this type of feedback is rarely honest, because the incentives are all wrong. The women knew that if they made an effort the investors were more likely to invest and they were more likely to keep their jobs. Whatever complaints they had about their work, whatever ideas they had to improve the way the farm was run, they made them behind closed doors. This may be effective on a farm, when there is a farm manager to talk to. It doesn’t work so well if you’re USAID or DFID, and you’re offering a $30 million technical assistance contract. The officials of the recipient government may know which proposals, donors, technical assistance providers they favour; but they are unlikely to turn down a $30 million contract if it’s the only one on offer. Funders are also accountable to their taxpayers and the people who represent them, who may have quite different priorities from recipient governments.

At AGI, we are not funders and we only work in countries where we have been invited by the government. Sometimes this allows us to get feedback that others don’t get.  For example, when we started working with the Liberian President’s new Delivery Unit (PDU), the head of the unit told us that he wasn’t finding our work helpful.  We decided to refocus our support on other parts of government and learnt a lot about how to be effective there.  Today, under a new unit director, we’re again working with the PDU.

We like to think this is an example of us being responsive to feedback.  But in some ways this instance is an exception. We ask people for anonymous feedback, hire consultants to do evaluations and ask third parties for their opinion. None of these methods are foolproof. We often find that our government colleagues are happy to comment on superficial things (“she was always punctual”) or give praise (“we couldn’t have done it without him”), but rarely say anything critical for fear of hurting our feelings. External evaluators can help, but our counterparts know that they are hired by us and tweak their message accordingly.

Finally, there is the feedback that voters give to governments. In young democracies, this feedback starts with elections. It shouldn’t end there, however. Elections are messy and blunt instruments. They are powerful, because you can’t ignore an election, but they are infrequent and very hard to read. So the challenge is to develop more feedback channels between citizens and governments, so government can be more responsive every day.

There are many efforts to improve feedback from citizens to government now, especially in Africa. For example, Kenya just held elections for county commissioners and city mayors, who used to be appointed by the President, expanding government’s accountability to citizens. Mobile phones are also helping. In Liberia, the government has introduced an Open Budget Initiative that puts the budget on a public display board, internet and – hopefully soon – people’s phones (though not everyone approves of the scheme). It is starting to work. In April 2013, one of us saw a student ask the President at a town hall meeting: “I went to the budget website and it said there was $1million allocated for road building in Grand Kru county. I am from Grand Kru and I haven’t seen any roads yet. When I called the local superintendent’s office, they didn’t respond to my call. What are you going to do about this?” The President didn’t have a ready answer, but promised to look into it.

Getting feedback right is important. If we do it well, we can learn from experience and correct mistakes. Feedback allows us to fail fast, so that we don’t fail big. We are not alone in our belief that governments, donors and NGOs all need to get better at feedback. Indeed, Owen Barder, at the Center for Global Development, concluded a recent presentation with a call to “build better feedback loops”.

We are far from having all the answers at AGI, but we are working hard at it, and we are interested to learn from others working in this field. What do you think? Please let us have your ideas by commenting below or email us: dan.hymowitz@tb-agi.org and rupert.simons@tb-agi.org.

Over the next year AGI will be publishing a series of case studies and analysis pieces looking at the impact of their work since its launch in 2005. Visit www.africagovernance.org to learn more.

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