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Flipping the script on donor support to education sector reform in Indonesia - the case for Politically Smart and Adaptive Programming

Indonesia has doubled its spending on education in the past 15 years. This investment has significantly improved access and enrolment, but has yet to result in improved learning outcomes for Indonesia's 50 million students. New approaches are needed.

Adaptive management programs like INOVASI are focussed on finding local solutions to local problems.

The Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) is taking an adaptive and politically smart approach to supporting improvements to education quality and outcomes. Richard Paulsen (Palladium’s Director of Education in Asia Pacific), Mark Heyward (INOVASI’s Team Leader), and Naomi Fillmore (INOVASI’s Program Manager), discuss emerging practical insights from INOVASI and other programs aiming to do development differently in Indonesia.

Doing Development Differently in Indonesia
The INOVASI program funded by the Australian government (2016-19) and has been given a broad remit of finding out more about what is working, not working and how to improve student learning outcomes in Indonesian primary classrooms.

Despite 20% of the national budget going into educational investments, benchmarks around student learning are worrisome. Various theories from the amount of time-on-task, a poor assessment structure, to weaknesses in pedagogy and teacher professional development. The INOVASI program was recently featured in a DEVEX article which provides more detail about why an adaptive and politically smart approach is the best methodological fit for doing education sector reform work in Indonesia.

Adaptive and politically smart approaches are growing in popularity globally as they align with modern development challenges, such as greater complexity of development problems, the recognition that politics matters, and the limited impact of traditional technocratic ‘grand-design’ solutions. With a decentralised government, short political cycles, and great diversity across a large archipelago, it’s clear that politically informed, local solutions to local problems are essential to Indonesia’s long term development.

Joining the global conversation
Palladium’s INOVASI program recently hosted a learning event in Jakarta on Politically Smart and Adaptive Programming. The workshop drew together a range of Australian Government funded programs that have integrated political economy and adaptive management approaches into their strategies and ways of working. The workshop followed on from an earlier Doing Development Differently workshop held in March 2017, hosted by the Government of Indonesia, the World Bank, and the Australian Government.

The October workshop focused on the practical insights, tools and approaches emerging from these adaptive and politically savvy programs. It aimed to create a structured space in which DFAT-funded programmes and DFAT staff could collectively explore what is working, shared challenges and opportunities for knowledge sharing.

An emerging model for adaptive programming in Indonesia
The workshop used a framework (derived from Palladium’s global experience managing adaptive programs, including INOVASI) to explore the key components of politically smart and adaptive programing. The framework highlights five core areas as critical for implementation and success. During the workshop the following emerged as common insights across programs.

Five core areas for implementation of adaptive management programs.

1. Decision making

  • Deciding when to stop: In innovative, adaptive programs, it is likely (and indeed expected) that some initiatives will fail, but a common challenge is deciding when to say ‘this isn’t working’. There are still many unanswered questions on how to put this principle into practice: who makes these decisions and how? How do we ensure that we ‘fail quickly’ and apply lessons from failures to future endeavours?
  • Balancing technical and political: There is an inherent tension within these programs between the technical and the political. Interventions and pilots should consider both perspectives: they should be technically sound, but also respectful of broader political dimensions and environment.

2. Team

  • Recruiting and training the right team: Innovative, competency-based recruitment is key to forming teams with the right outlook for implementing adaptive programs. For example, INOVASI has a tool that has been used to recruit district level staff that tests mind-set growth. Once recruited, capacity development is important, recognising that candidates with existing knowledge and experience of adaptive approaches are rare.
  • Creating the right culture: As well as getting the right individuals, a conducive culture is key to adaptive programs. Creating a sense of common mission and values, as well as effective ways of working, is critical to ensure that teams work together towards the same goals and understand the role each individual plays in achieving the whole. On INOVASI we are starting to move away from nationally-focused team coordination meetings to regionally-hosted events where our provincial teams take a hand in both setting the agenda and giving other team members a feel for how things are working in those areas.

3. Management and systems

  • Flexible contracts and budgets: INOVASI has benefited from a flexible head contract and budget structure, which supports flexible implementation of adaptive approaches. On programs with more rigid budgets, another option is to set aside a dedicated fund for testing and experimenting with a set pool of money.
  • Balancing accountability with flexibility: Finding the right balance between accountability and flexibility can be difficult. By understanding where there is flexibility in a system, we can capitalise on windows of opportunity. For example, in the Indonesian government budgeting cycle, there is an annual window of opportunity for securing co-funding from district and provincial partners

4. Enabling Environment

  • Working in partnership: With adaptive programs, closer working relationships are recommended between the donor and its implementing partners. An approach that has proved successful on INOVASI and other programs in Indonesia is having a partnership agreement or ‘Ways of Working’ document developed through a facilitated process. Both the document and the process help ensure donor and implementing partner have a clear understanding of each other’s needs and drivers.
  • Form versus function: Local government partners often expect development partners to bring ready-made solutions that are best practice, low risk, and with guaranteed results, which is at odds with an approach that calls for local solutions to local problems. By bringing partners in from the beginning to co-design solutions, we can create buy in and support for alternatives.

5. Learning

  • Using the right tools: Adaptive programs need user-friendly tools that can capture evidence and learning in real time. Meanwhile, traditional reporting tools can be onerous and overwhelming for field staff, and can miss capturing unexpected or unintended outcomes. Adaptive programs such as INOVASI are beginning to use non-traditional and less formal tools, such as back-to-office interviews, closed Facebook groups, and WhatsApp groups, to capture learning ‘on the run’ that can be transcribed and mined later.
  • Learning by doing: Learning, analysis, and reflection is best done by those implementing the program rather than outside advisers or specialists. For example, on INOVASI we hired a research firm to conduct a district diagnostics activity, but when the results came in, much of it was already known to our local team. Team-led political economy analysis may have provider faster and more nuanced information.
  • Role of research: There is a common tension between having a solid body of evidence on which to base decisions and being able to move and adapt quickly. Rigorous research and analysis takes time and outcome level results tend to come later in the program, so adaptive programs need to find the balance between ongoing learning through shorter feedback loops and regular team reflection versus more robust, formal analysis and evaluation.
  • Strategy testing: INOVASI has benefitted from Strategy Testing on a six-monthly basis to refine our strategy and Theory of Change (ToC). Through this approach, we’ve made significant progress in refining our thinking about what INOVASI is designed to do and how we are going to do it. Other programs, including many of those within the Palladium global portfolio, have taken Strategy Testing a step further by incorporating multiple ‘streams’ of information into a review process.
A framework for Strategy Testing

In practice, revising the programs strategy this frequently can feel quite unnerving - like the ground is being pulled from under one’s feet. But working adaptively, in the end, should feel unnerving, because it requires constant motion and regular change, reflecting the fact that not only is the context evolving, but that the team’s knowledge, relationships and thus opportunities are also evolving.

What next?
The adaptive and politically smart programming space is a busy one. Much of the growing experience on experimenting with approaches to politically smart and adaptive programming here in Indonesia has yet to be written down or shared amongst the various programs - and this appears to be the next frontier of the work.

Perhaps the most significant theme that emerged from the recent learning event was that there is enough consensus amongst practitioners about the major concepts and attributes that underpin the adaptive management space – whether from the Doing Development Differently (DDD), Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) or Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) worlds. What practitioners really want now is a place where practical tools and case studies can be shared in a way that makes all of our programming stronger.

Palladium, through programs like INOVASI, will continue to push this agenda forward. The need for sustainable reform, particularly in Indonesia’s education sector, very much needs us to keep doing things differently.