Monday, August 4, 2008

Workin’ the Workshops

Work: 1 the use of physical strength or mental power to make or do something
Shop: 2 a place where things are manufactured or repaired

In the middle of the year workshops come into season. Fiscal years run on the calendar year in Ghana, so wrap-up from the previous year and planning for the next year happens in the first 6 months, and activities that aim to address the areas for improvement brought out in the previous review are slated for the last 6 months.

What this means for the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit where I work, is amongst scheduled field reviews with programme secretariats, quarterly monitoring requirements, monthly tender review meetings for project implementation and special projects from the Minister’s office, our senior staff of 2 and newly hired junior officer are called out for anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks for workshops and training. You can imagine how progress on any projects during these months is compromised and that it becomes a fierce competition to get any dedicated time and effort on anything.

The stated objectives of these workshops usually cover the introduction of new tools, refining of old tools, retraining on processes, or skill development. Most times there are 2 or more of these objectives crammed into a 2-3 day workshop.

After decades of workshops in the development sector we still see the same issues being covered, the same skills focused on, and the same gaps in institutional capacity. Part of this is to be expected as people move on and there becomes a need to train new staff, but it’s fairly safe to say that workshops in general don’t produce the desired level of results.

To find the nearest workshop look for the white SUVs.

Work: 2 tasks that need to be done
Shop: 3 to go to a shop or shops to buy things

This situation begs a few questions:

Why aren’t workshops producing the desired level of results?
If workshops are so ineffective why are they continually showing up in annual plans and budgets so incessantly?

I’ll answer the second question first. The attributes of a workshop are very attractive. It’s a way to reach a broad range of people at once in a short period of time. They’re one-offs with an open-closed feature that fits nicely into timelines and budgets. They also end up allowing national and regional offices to reach rural areas without having to go there themselves.

NGOs and Donors also tend to find themselves with budget surpluses at the end of the year because ambitious annual plans run out of time to be fully implemented. A quick and easy way to spend money without a lot of overhead time or energy required is to hold a workshop.

Work: 3 thing or things produced as a result of work
Shop: 1 a building or part of a building where goods or services are sold to the public

A whole industry has evolved to support workshops. Professional facilitators and event planners make a livelihood out of planning agendas, orchestrating break-out discussions, and mapping out ideas on flip-charts. I don’t mean to devalue any of those tools, but I can definitely say that there is a thriving business made out of analyzing, strategizing, and systematizing other people’s business. It makes workshops a more accessible option with a few customizable bells and whistles thrown in.

Work: 4 what a person does as an occupation especially to earn money

Having a myriad of workshops offered is one thing, but trying to attend them all is another. You could ask why people don’t just refuse to attend some workshops in order to focus on something and maintain some level of operation in the office during these months. Or you could ask why the same people will attend the same type of training in the same year offered by different organisations. The answer is a reality that becomes apparent as soon as you do the math.

My co-workers in the civil service don’t make enough in their salary to support a small family, never mind plan for the future or support the extended family as they are so often called on to do. I haven’t seen the salary brackets in print yet so I’m hesitant to put down an exact figure, but my counterpart makes around 2/3 of my volunteer stipend, with no benefits. Workshop per-diems which I’ve seen range from 7-15 GH¢/day can double a daily wage. This does more than provide incentive to attend, it makes it possible to keep their day job.

Any organization considering cancelling workshops on the basis that they achieve little results, but who at the same time want to support decentralisation in Ghana by building the capacity of the public service at the District and Regional levels, needs to consider that they are in fact supplementing salaries in order to keep good people doing a good job.

Work: 5 a book, a piece of music, a painting

Looking at the second question: why don’t workshops work? We need to analyze what the problems are that we’re trying to solve by holding a workshop, and we need to identify what workshops produce, and make sure that the two align. Typical workshop outputs are reports, manuals, statements of commitment, and pretty much any type of document you can imagine. These are the tangible results. If we follow a Results Based Management framework and look at the outcomes of workshops: decisions made, skills developed etc. the connection becomes a lot less evident.

The trouble is that many times the problem is not one that can be solved by written information or instruction. Rather, a change in behaviour is required.

My boss opens a workshop by acknowledging common challenges.

Work: 6 (physics) the use of force to produce movement
Shop: 2 a place where things are manufactured or repaired

Behaviour Change is certainly not a novel term, you can argue that it is the essence of development work. It can make people uncomfortable to admit that that is what they are trying to do, and instead they’ll opt for terms like skill development, while leaving it implicit that those skills will then be employed. It can sound manipulative, but on some level you have to allow that people in the end will make their own decisions, and as long as you are honest with yourself and them it’s perfectly ethical.

There are a number of behaviour change models out there and volumes of research and documentation available on the subject. A common misconception that development workers fall prey to is: the reason something is not currently being down is because there is not enough knowledge or awareness on the subject. Or put another way, if you educate people on germ theory and show them how to wash their hands, they will begin washing their hands. As with most things, the problem is not nearly so simple, and neither is the solution.

The more successful behaviour change models recognize that there are several stages to it. Just like changing your diet or forming a new habit, a person has to feel the need to change, go through a transition period to make the change, and then stay changed. Rarely is education or awareness alone enough to make this happen. Recognizing this puts workshops alone at a serious disadvantage in terms of stimulating a behaviour change.

“Business as usual won’t cut it”

This is something my boss told me on our way back from a workshop before returning to business (as usual). This time we’re trying to put our time and (UNICEF’s) money where our mouth is. As we wade through the flood of workshops and reviews and gear up for some training from UNICEF, the RPCU is playing a much more active role in determining what that will look like. We’ve recognized that we’re trying to influence a behaviour change, not develop a slick tool for monitoring and evaluation. These next couple of months will be spent looking at the things holding back the districts from carrying out the necessary monitoring and evaluation of projects, and the incorporation of that knowledge into evidence-based decision making. From this we will develop an on-the-job training program that will be able to address the specific needs of each District and allow for follow-up and refinement of the overall monitoring and evaluation system across the Northern Region. The initial component of the training will still be a workshop, but the primary component will be the planned follow-up training at each of the District offices.

One of the program coordinators wrapping up a workshop with a list of next steps.

I’m excited about the potential change in the power dynamic that exists between the RPCU and Development Partners (the Donor organisations who fund projects through the government). Despite the organisational mandates that put the RPCU in the driver’s seat, in practicality there is simply not enough time, resources, or people to provide the required input into Development Partner activities. Usually this means they have to make their best guess coming from an outside perspective, and they usually miss the subtleties that contribute to the overall outcome of a programme. I hope that through my position with the RPCU I can put time and energy into facilitating a much more interactive relationship with the Development Partners, in a way that makes it easier to maintain when I leave.

* All definitions taken from Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 1995