USAID Incorporates Adaptive Management to Improve the Program Cycle

Dec 3, 2015 by Melissa Patsalides Comments (0)

I recently attended a fascinating workshop in London, hosted by the Real Time Data Team in the Global Development Lab, where staff from seemingly disparate fields and organizations came together for two days to discuss adaptive management and how to enable it. While these folks represented donors, humanitarian organizations, researchers and IT types, it was amazing to see how readily they all embraced adaptive management - loosely defined as a way to manage programs and projects that allows you to make adjustments when faced with new information or changing context. 

Adaptive management is something many USAID staff and implementing partners have intuitively felt the need for, and sometimes implemented in spite of apparent bureaucratic constraints, for several years now. 

The Agency is increasingly working in countries that are unstable and in transition. And even in more stable environments, we cannot always reliably predict how events or circumstances will evolve and impact our programs. As a result, USAID’s traditional management approach, which assumes that we can foresee, with some certainty, how a country or sector will change over time, is inadequate. Ben Ramalingam, a global development researcher and author, visited USAID last summer as PPL was wrestling with how to incorporate more adaptive management approaches into the ADS 200-203 series on the Program Cycle.

USAID and Adaptive Management

We are giving much thought to how adaptive management can support the Agency’s work to achieve more effective development results. It will require strategic plans and project designs as well as procurement processes and budgets that facilitate adaptability. All of this is needed to enable us to respond to new and changing circumstances to get the best results.

Program Cycle Changes to Promote Adaptive Management

A central focus of the upcoming revised ADS guidance on the Program Cycle is adaptive management. Through PPL’s extensive engagement across the Agency to identify how we should change the policy, staff shared issues that hampered their ability to incorporate adaptive management, and discussed ways to address them in the new guidance.

Below are some of the ways PPL is working to strengthen and promote adaptive management within the Agency:

Issue: Country strategies and projects viewed as static documents that are out-of-date shortly after approval.

Proposed response: Encourage adaptive management through iterative planning and ongoing monitoring, evaluation and learning (e.g. portfolio reviews, mid-term stocktaking) so that missions’ strategic approach reflects changes to country context, budget shifts, and lessons learned.

Issue: Guidance does not help staff select appropriate procurement mechanisms to facilitate achievement of project and activity results (acquisition vs. assistance, hard to adapt). This is important to our partners who most often need more appropriate mechanisms to adapt.

Proposed response: The new guidance will clarify how and when Contracting Officers need to be engaged in activity design so that missions can make better choices about appropriate mechanisms to facilitate adaptive management. PPL is collaborating with OAA to ensure that Contracting and Agreement Officers are knowledgeable about the full range of implementing mechanisms available, many of which already have some flexibility. We are also working with OAA to enable AOs and COs to work with teams to identify the most appropriate instruments to achieve desired results. 

Issue: Learning and evidence are not used effectively or in a timely way to inform project design and ongoing implementation. We ask our partners for a lot of information, yet we should do a better job to use that info more effectively.

Proposed response: One of the most significant changes in the revised guidance will be to introduce a new focus on learning: collecting information, analyzing it, and explicitly using it to make decisions and adapt our strategies, projects and activities to ensure that we are on track to achieve results. 

Issue: In past years, the Agency has focused on monitoring performance primarily for accountability purposes - to the Congress and other stakeholders. This is important but can eclipse the power of collecting information that informs effective implementation.

Proposed response: It is equally important that monitoring be used for learning and adapting our programs. This new focus on learning will enable us to make better use of data, improve impact, and increase adaptability.  

A New Way of Doing Business

We are talking with partners and Agency staff about how and where they have effectively been able to take in new information and modify what they are doing. Or how they have put in place structures and mechanisms that are able to shift when their context changes dramatically. The use of adaptive management is a new way of doing business, which PPL knows will require significant changes to how the Agency works as an organization and with our partners in order to be successful.

We want to hear from you! Give us feedback on your capacity to respond to the new policy direction. Some questions to think about:

  • Have you been able to successfully manage programs adaptively?
    • What were the enabling factors? 
    • What challenges did you face?
  • What have you done in your bureau or mission to adapt?
  • What have you learned from experiences with adaptive management that could benefit others at USAID and our partnerships as we increasingly use that approach?

Melissa Patsalides, acting deputy director for the Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research at USAID, recently returned from a workshop in London on adaptive management. Attending with colleagues from the Global Development Lab, she brought back ideas on how USAID can use adaptive management to better respond to new and changing circumstances to get the best development results.