For those interested in evidence-informed policy it’s fairly easy to get a sense of what the BCURE programme involves from a purely technical perspective. BCURE is made up of six different consortia working across a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa/South Asia to deliver a series of specific interventions all with the goal of increasing the demand for evidence by policy makers within those countries. However, it was my privilege to organise this year’s BCURE Annual Meeting, because it was a chance to see all the acronyms and lists of interventions come to life, and to get a real sense of what BCURE is all about, which is essentially a roomful of seriously smart, informed and energised people who are focused on delivering tangible development outcomes in this complex and challenging area of capacity building.
We are now over a year into delivering this three-year programme. Whereas at last year’s meeting, even though it provided a great forum to launch the programme and for all the partners to meet for the first time, there was a sense that partners were slightly nervously sizing each other up, this year the atmosphere was relaxed from the start, and everyone seemed willing to sign up to a fairly frank and open conversation about how things were going. I have handily broken down some of the key themes that emerged from discussions using the BCURE acronym.
The first day of the meeting created plenty of space to talk through not only the early successes of the programme but some of the common challenges and barriers to implementation shared by partners. There was also an entertaining but relatively restrained and constructive discussion when DFID left the room and gave partners the space to discuss what DFID could do differently. This ended with a positive conversation where BCURE partners were able to share some of their frustrations with meeting the numerous DFID reporting requests and DFID programme leads were able to explain the rationale behind the requests.
Having the opportunity to share frustrations was undoubtedly cathartic, but more than that, helped the partners to unpick connections and commonalities between the different projects. Whilst slightly intangible, feedback at the end of the meeting indicated that having the chance to use other partners as a sounding board, and realising that each partner is part of a bigger community all grappling with the same issues, was a particularly valuable aspect of the meeting for many.
A seminar on the first day gave DFID staff from Whitehall, East Kilbride, India and Kenya the chance to hear about some of the early lessons from BCURE programme. Adam Smith International were able to share their experiences of trying to run BCURE programme in very challenging and rapidly changing contexts in South Sudan and Sierra Leone. The key message was that even in a crisis access to reliable information is crucial – and in fact can be even more important because of the need to inform rapid decision making.
Harvard Kennedy School presented some of the initial learning from developing systems to increase access to data for a large public works programme in India. This was a very tangible example of how increased access to and capacity to use monitoring data has the potential to improve transparency and directly impact on programme implementation.
One of the key themes emerging from the different conversations was that at this stage in the programme context is becoming ever more relevant, as the different teams grapple with the way that policy making operates in their particular focus countries, and the specific needs and challenges that this presents. Projects have developed an in depth understanding of the evidence eco-systems that exist in countries and the importance of building relationships within those systems.
A significant challenge that was raised repeatedly throughout the meeting is the difficulty of responding to the sometimes spiralling expectations that the BCURE programme has generated in some of the countries. These expectations can be manifest in fairly mundane ways, such as difficult conversations with beneficiaries about the clear line that the programme takes about not paying sitting fees to those participating in training activities.
The challenge can be more complicated when high expectations are connected to enthusiasm about the programme. In such instances all activities undertaken by BCURE partners to raise the profile of the programme run the risk of encouraging beneficiary organisations to make increasing demands about additional activities related to evidence use, which fall outside of the scope of the BCURE programme. Getting this balance right, and trying to maintain enthusiasm and momentum whilst being prepared to push back against ever increasing expectations, can take a lot of skill. What really struck through was that in order to have a sustainable impact, the programme needs to be about focused high quality support for willing and able institutions as opposed to high quantity ‘fly in, fly out’ capacity building.
REALITY OF POLICY MAKING
Peter Thomas from the Institute for Government helped to set the tone for the second day of the meeting. Peter was able to share his expertise from the UK Civil Service’s attempts to introduce various reforms over several decades. His thoughtful presentation helped to put the challenges currently faced by the BCURE partners in perspective: reforming any political institution is seriously tricky, and experience shows that most reforms will lose momentum eventually. Peter’s framework helped BCURE partners to step outside of the immediate context they’re working in and think more objectively about the specific factors that might realistically impact on the success of their particular reform interventions – factors such as the buy-in of senior leaders and the level of ambition of the reform in question.
As a group the BCURE partners talk a lot about incentives within organisations, since a key focus of the programme is trying to influence behaviours around evidence use. This can seem like a particularly intangible aspect of the BCURE initiative – sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly what we mean by incentives. Some projects are looking at building concrete expectations into policy making, for example setting up formal procedures around evidence use. For other BCURE partners, the focus of incentive-building activities is organisational culture and leadership. The Annual Meeting provided an opportunity for partners to step back and think as critically and objectively as possible about what incentive structures are most realistic and influential in the context they are working in.
Although we are less than half way through this three year programme it was evident that questions about longevity and sustainability are already emerging. The Annual Meeting also gave an opportunity for honest conversations about how long lasting the impact of the current BCURE programmes is likely to be, and how best can we hope to maintain some of the momentum currently being generated. The message I hoped to convey to partners in organising the meeting is that the BCURE network is what the partner organisations make of it. The initial connections and introductions have now been made; it’s now up to the individual members of the network to build on these foundations if the aim is to ensure that the BCURE initiative is greater and more sustainable than the sum of each of the individual projects.
Partners were encouraged to think about the bigger picture on the second day with an insightful presentation from the team that will be leading the BCURE evaluation. The BCURE evaluation will not only be evaluating the performance of the individual projects, but assessing the evidence base for the theory of change that underpins the whole BCURE programme. At the first Annual Meeting there was a focus on the theory of change, encouraging partners to create space where possible to take a step back from day to day delivery, and reflect on whether the project is still moving towards the intended outcomes and impact of BCURE as a whole. The presentation by the evaluation team emphasised that the intention is for the evaluation to be continuously keeping the theory of change in mind as the projects progress, so that the end result is clarity about whether the assumptions underpinning the BCURE programme as a whole are robust.
BCURE: What Next?
This is quite a weighty burden of expectation for the BCURE projects – the hope that somehow, by the end of this, we’ll have a much clearer sense of how to promote evidence-informed policy making in developing countries. To me the sense from this year’s Annual Meeting was that we’re all only just starting out on that journey. In many of the countries it seems like the project teams are really starting to get to grips with the various policy making landscapes and what it is we mean by both policy making and evidence in these different contexts. This time next year I hope that some clarity will start to emerge, and we’ll be a position to reflect more on what’s working well, what isn’t going so well and, importantly, why.
My hope for the Annual Meeting was that it would allow for reflection and lesson learning from the first year of the BCURE programme, but also challenge partners to think differently about the programme, and to energise everyone for the year ahead. What became clear is that the partners certainly didn’t need much encouragement from me or the rest of the DFID team to engage with difficult debates head on. The real strength of the BCURE programme is in the partners themselves, who are completely dedicated to wrestling with all of the thornier aspects of trying to make this programme work on a daily basis. It’s an exciting time for the programme, and I look forward to seeing how the network grows and develops over the next year as we progress with the implementation phase.