In this interview with Emily Varga, Learning Lab learns more about a pilot approach from USAID’s Local, Faith and Transformative Partnerships (LFT) Hub that seeks to identify early learning from implementation to inform adaptive management.The pilot approach, called collaborative redesign, integrates the practice of pause and reflect and uniquely engages local partners as key participants who both contribute to and learn from the pause and reflect and redesign process.
This interview accompanies a resource, Collaborative Activity Redesign: Putting Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) into Practice, which provides further background on lessons learned through the pilot collaborative redesign process, tips for undertaking this approach, and a sample agenda and timeline. The resource was produced by the (formerly known as) Office of Local Sustainability.
Emily Varga is the Acting Engagement, Evidence and Learning Team Lead and a Cooperative Business Specialist in the LFT Hub within the Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation (DDI). Additionally, Emily serves as the Agreement Officer Representative (AOR) for USAID’s Cooperative Development Program.
Katherine Doyle, Learning Lab manager: Tell me a little bit about the Cooperative Development Program.
Emily Varga: The Cooperative Development Program, or CDP, is a global effort to build and strengthen community-owned and operated businesses - called cooperatives and credit unions. Activities address challenges to governance, member equity and capitalization, financial management, market performance, legal and regulatory reform, gender inclusion, and youth engagement. The CDP also emphasizes research, learning and piloting innovative approaches to development. The program is currently operating in 17 countries, partnered with over 100 cooperatives and credit unions, in the sectors of agriculture, finance, health and energy.
Katherine: I understand that the CDP piloted a new approach to adapt from early learning from activity implementation, called collaborative redesign. Can you describe that approach, why it was initiated, and how it differs from a mid-term evaluation?
Emily: We modeled our entire program through a CLA lens. First, we co-designed all of our activities with U.S. and local cooperative businesses. This enabled us to receive buy-in earlier on in the program cycle and set the tone for shared ownership of the program. Additionally, I believe it shifted the posture of our partnerships with local organizations to create greater equity in an otherwise challenging power dynamic. Following the co-design of activities, we wanted to build in an opportunity to ‘pause and reflect’ earlier on in implementation.
We had noted in past five-year programs, mid-term evaluations were often conducted in the third year, resulting in findings and recommendations in the fourth year, and adaptations only able to be implemented in the fifth and final year. At that point, it was too late to make any significant shifts. Also, there was a need to validate initial assumptions in the activity work plan following start-up, learning from the baseline evaluation, and the signing of MOUs with local partners. So, 1.5 years into our five-year awards, we collaboratively redesigned activities with our nine implementing partners, which included country-level work planning and focus groups with our local cooperatives and credit unions.
Katherine: The collaborative redesign process that CDP undertook from February to September in 2020 entailed pausing and reflecting. Where did this take place? What are examples of some of the activities that were assessed? Why was this set of activities a particularly good fit to pilot the collaborative redesign process?
Emily: The project was primed well to conduct a collaborative co-redesign process. Since all our activities were originally co-designed with relevant stakeholders, during our start-up workshop we asked all partners to respond to a series of forward-looking questions that we used to capture in 1-Year Look Back documents with the intention of adapting activities. The first phase of the collaborative redesign process actually occurred virtually. This way, we were able to more easily bring partners from different time zones into one “room.” Through nine two-hour sessions, we redesigned activities in 15 countries. We asked the same questions to all the organizations: a) what did you learn from the baseline and gender assessments; b) what did you learn from your work planning process; c) what have you learned from Mission engagement; d) what have you learned from local stakeholder engagement; e) have you identified areas for improvement in your original problem statement, in your geographic focus, in your technical approach, in your targets or in your partner selection?
The activities for which we conducted collaborative redesign were a great fit because they are under five-year assistance programming and are implemented in lockstep with the evolving needs of local cooperatives and credit unions. For example, one activity builds the capacity of credit unions in Eastern Africa to extend financial products and services to underserved small businesses. Another seeks to modernize processing facilities of agricultural cooperatives in South Asia so that their products can be food safe and ready for export. In both of these examples, partners saw the value of a pause and reflect to ensure that activities were on track with larger, long-term program objectives and to integrate what they had heard from local partners and stakeholders into their work plans, activity monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) plans, and other implementation processes.
Katherine: How was pausing and reflecting structured throughout the collaborative redesign process?
Emily: We tried to bring together the right people at the right time, and each process looked different based on what the implementing and local partners needed. In the planning phase, we asked our partners who they wanted to be at the table. We asked them to review and reflect on their original Program Description and 1-Year Look Back documents. USAID was often in listening mode for the initial session and played more of a facilitative role in the subsequent sessions to inform adaptation. This process began with an informational session with our implementing partners and their technical staff (6-8 people) who then went on to validate that information with local cooperatives and credit unions (10-15 people). This culminated in a final virtual workshop with the implementing partners and their management teams (5-10 people) in which they finalized their Program Descriptions, revised MEL plans, targets and in some cases, realigned their budgets.
With nine organizations, working in 17 countries, this was a lot to coordinate. As much as we wanted to have the right people in the room, we had to rely on our implementing partners to facilitate offline discussions with their local clients. But, because we have built a culture of learning and trust, we believe that these sessions were held with intentionality and integrity to shape efforts moving forward.
Katherine: Why was it important to CDP to include local partners and other stakeholders in the pause and reflect and collaborative redesign processes?
Emily: Unfortunately, proposals are often drafted in the United States by business development teams, far from the communities that our activities serve. There is a real need to validate our initial plans and assumptions with those closest to the program - whether that be with field staff or the local communities, and ensure that their perspectives (and realities) are meaningfully reflected in our programming. At the time, the CDP was housed in the Office of Local Sustainability and is now located in the Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub. It is not just good development practice for USAID to take a facilitative role and create space for local partners, clients and end users to inform the agenda, this approach is aligned with the vision of our office.
Katherine: Were there particularly challenging aspects of bringing many stakeholders ‘into the room’ during the pause and reflect sessions? Did the team make adaptations during the process to address these challenges? If so, what were they?
Emily: There were the typical technical difficulties with running virtual sessions, despite conducting dry runs. This required both patience and grace as we identified other means, such as cell phones and WhatsApp, to bring people into these critical discussions.
Katherine: Do you think the pause and reflect approach itself that informed the overall collaborative redesign effort was successful? Did USAID and/or partners get ‘out’ of these sessions or events what they hoped to?
Emily: Following the collaborative redesign, we did an After Action Review with our implementing partners. We learned that they found the process to be extremely useful to revisit their original program descriptions and validate their approaches. All partners did make adjustments to their activities in one way or another. Some positive feedback we received from an implementing partner on the collaborative redesign process included:
Our team highly valued the invitation to pause and reflect about our program description, work plans and objectives, resulting not so much in a pivot away from the original but rather a deepening of our commitment to restoring original elements that had gotten lost and some new ideas about how to achieve the original goals. The timing also worked well--late enough in the project so we had good information about what was working and not working, but early enough to be able to make some meaningful mid-course corrections. The extended timeline also allowed us to take time for reflection without having to churn out a revised budget and program description at the same time. One key element of the process was that we felt a lot of trust in the USAID team so we were able to share very transparently. The mutual respect and sense of shared goals allowed for a genuine exchange.
We also learned that we could have done a better job communicating expectations at the beginning of the process. Since all of our implementing and local partners were new to this process, many of them wanted to know exactly what it was going to look like. Some constructive feedback we received from an implementing partner on the collaborative redesign process included:
It would have been helpful to have clearer expectations on PowerPoints and additional information on what exactly needed to be provided. The agenda seemed to be over-complicated and we also had a challenge with technology and ended up connecting via cell phones.
Katherine: Can you share an example of an applied outcome of the pause and reflect events? Was there a lesson or an outcome from the pause & reflect that was unexpected?
Emily: All nine cooperative agreements were modified to reflect the shifts determined in the co-redesign sessions. This meant revising the program descriptions and in some cases, the budgets, to better reflect the direction of the activities moving forward.
Katherine: Is CDP planning to conduct additional collaborative redesign processes in the near future? If so, what are some of the lessons learned that the team hopes to apply?
Emily: On a bi-monthly basis, the CDP facilitates learning sessions, known as the CDP 30for30 webinar series, on different themes that are of interest to our implementing partners. Over the course of five years, the CDP will host 30, 30-minute sessions - half of those will be USAID learning and half will be partner learning. Some USAID topics have included: Mission engagement, gender integration, and subaward compliance. Some partner topics have included: cooperative governance, youth engagement and cooperative development research. These sessions are meant to be intentional pause and reflect opportunities for our implementing partners so that the learning and dissemination aspects are well integrated throughout the life of the project. USAID’s Cooperative Development Program intends to apply this collaborative redesign approach in future activities and the DDI/LFT Hub often advocates for intentional pause and reflect opportunities in implementation of USAID assistance activities.