A goal of this week’s post is to offer some back-ground info for a conversation this Wednesday, at 5:30pm PST. I’ll be digging into my work with the UBC Chapter of EWB, so this is a backgrounder on what I’ve been working on lately. If you haven’t had the chance, I’d recommend reading About G&RI and Best Guesses on G&RI first (though it’s probably not necessary). If you’d like to participate, you can go to UBC or just skype in –get in touch with me before-hand and we’ll work it out!
What activities are you currently engaged in?
The main thing I’m working on right now is a project looking at how information is handled at Tamale Metro (the District Assembly my placement is at – basically, a Municipal Government). I’ve built up a rough understanding on how data is processed by the folks in the MPCU (Metropolitan Planning and Coordinating Unit, who make budgets and plans for the activities of Tamale Metro), but our understanding of the Departmental context is much less refined, so I’m engaging in a process that will help explore this.
Each year, the MPCU has to report to the Region (the next highest level of government) on a number of different “development indicators”, to track progress and allow for strategic decision making in terms of where to focus resources in coming years. Each Department (Roads, Health, Education, Social Welfare, Finance – about 15 in total, of varying size and importance) is supposed to contribute relevant indicators as requested by the MPCU. Unfortunately, in the past, the responses have been slow, incomplete, or just plain non-existent.
The goal is to better understand the processes in place for this information transfer, the barriers and choke-points that are slowing this down. We’re also very interested in looking at how this data is perceived and used: Are Departments just collecting this information to meet a reporting requirement or is it actually feeding into decisions made at that level?
In practice, I’m facilitating the data collection process by directly engaging the Districts and asking them exactly these questions. I’ll be working closely with the Planner and his assistants, to act as bridge between them and the Departments. I’ll also be holding interviews with Planners, Department Heads, and Statisticians to try to narrow down and find out what is done with all this information (and there is a LOT of data being collected in Tamale!).
Isn’t that gap-filling?
Yeah. Yeah, it is. The goal is to take learnings and findings from the exercise to try to deliver some feedback on the process to all the stake-holders. Are changes required at the MPCU level? The Department level? Some other level? All of the above? What are some best practices that Departments can learn from each other? My goal is that, by identifying these and delivering some “outsider” feedback, the process will be improved such that next year, this whole exercise is simple. I’m trying to mitigate this by involving some of the Assistant Planners as well.
So what are your current hypotheses on the challenges?
Looking first at the challenge as to why data isn’t being transferred to the MPCU, a key challenge is that the MPCU has no direct power (e.g. hierarchical, sanctioning power…) over the Departments. The Departments get this request, and it gets put on the back-burner. Meanwhile, the MPCU is scrambling to meet a reporting deadline to someone who does have sanctioning power… over the Assembly, and not the Departments. It’s one example of the problems associated with having Departments so closely connected to their centralized Ministries. Long story short, the Department doesn’t perceive as the reporting exercise as urgent or important.
As to whether data is being effectively used, this is a much greater and more complex challenge. This exercise will hopefully provide some insights into whether the environment enables or disables the use of data in decision making, but the question of data usage in decision making, central to the impact our team is trying to achieve, is massive, multifaceted (as a taste, you’ve got the processes I’m investigating, on top of capacity, politics, organizational culture, and available technology), and I can really only touch on it here.
So how does it help you reach that impact?
On the one hand, by helping develop my and the team’s understanding of the processes and systems surrounding data and decision making, we’ll be on much firmer footing to start taking strategic decisions, at the District level or otherwise. Furthermore, making sure the right people even have access to the data they need to evidence-based decision-making is a necessary precursor. While having the right info is necessary to make good decisions, simply having the info doesn’t guarantee good decisions – that’s a behavior change. (There’s a law in Vancouver that you need to wear a helmet when you ride a bike. But just because someone owns a helmet, doesn’t mean they wear.)
We can also take the findings of this exercise and feed it into our work at the Regional level and the National level. EWB has been able to offer a lot of value at these levels by being able to communicate the “District realities”.
Lastly, it’s my opinion that the actual act of undertaking this exercise, asking these questions and all the while making my agenda (evidence-based decision-making) transparent and clear, will inherently bring us closer to that goal (however infinitesimally). Hopefully it will plant some seeds, get people bought into the vision. Maybe we’ll discover some new allies and champions, or even create some.
Any clarifying or critical questions? Any ideas on how to address some of these challenges? Comment below! We’ll be discussing this all in more detail on Wednesday, February 9th. If you want to Skype in, drop me a line.