Sunday, 8 January 2012

An approach for community participation in local government evaluation

I work as a consultant in South Africa. While most of my evaluation work has related to poverty reduction initiatives, I have also undertaken evaluation work on multi-year HIV and Aids programme.

The background to this 'evaluation insight' is the numerous ‘service delivery protests’ that occur each year in South Africa. Despite key government departments’ developmental programmes, people in communities take to the streets to demand that local authorities address their needs more effectively.

This ‘evaluation tip’ relates to mass participation in evaluation. I have written on participation and good governance (for example at Like many, I am a fan of Robert Chambers, the leading light on participatory methodology. But whereas his work is usually located in the rural and village context, I have used the principles of participation in the urban/industrial context. For the Office of the Premier of South Africa’s Western Cape Province, I ran a planning process involving well over 150 staff members. And while working at Deloitte Consulting, I conducted a structured mass planning session (strategy fine-tuning) at one of three key terminals at the Richards Bay Port. In developing this 'evaluation tip', I also cross-reference to approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry and People’s Participatory Planning, both of which I have encountered in the course of consulting and organisational development work. I also reference to Future Search methodology which balances a respect for diversity with notions of 'common ground'.

Now I am advocating for the use of a ‘large group process’ in public sector evaluation processes, with a particular focus on local government.

I suggest a 3-day engagement process – a process informed by prior field research and due community-level consultation. Day 1 is devoted to community representatives defining their own development indicators; it also allows for government to present its priorities and key indicators for the period under review.

During Day 2 participants are involved in a structured assessment of outcomes using participatory methods. The process includes the introduction of a rubric and a visualized scoring process. It also entails eliciting examples, substantiation and debate during group work. Given South African realities, the major focus of discussion will be on whether local government ‘delivery’ has brought positive changes to communities or to people’s lives.

Day 3 will feature 30 to 40 people, working more intensely. The participants will be representatives from sector groups, most likely 2 persons per sector. Using focus group methods, these participants will make comment on either a draft evaluation report or a specially prepared report on the outcome-level performance of the local authority. At a closing ceremony, the Mayor or municipal manager will thank delegates and clearly state how the community feedback will be used in the evaluation process.

The standard design allows for 250 participants, but with careful planning and the right facilities, the number can be increased to 300. Particularly during Day 2, the large-scale consultation will feature work in sectoral sub-groups representing, for example, youth, entrepreneurs/local businesspersons, people dwelling in informal settlements and homeowners. Sectoral groups are complemented by at least two, but often more, groups constituted on a 'max-mix' basis. All groups, which may also be termed 'table groups', will have facilitation support and will comprise about ten people. The particular perspective and experience of women is elicited during the deliberations of all sub-groups. It is important to note that the use of sectoral groups is not so they can focus on sectoral themes. Rather, the aim is to allow the plenary to see if or where scoring differs based on the experiences of certain sub-groups.

This kind of mass participation in assessing developmental outcomes can/should be a critical input local government evaluation. Such input would no doubt form part of a wider process using multiple data sources. Insight: The mass participation process described is designed to enhance dialogue between community and government representatives. In the Day 3 activity, community representatives will engage with government data and the official viewpoint regarding achievements in the period under review. During the Day 1 sessions, government representatives will have the opportunity to hear an undiluted community view of development priorities; they will also hear what indicators matter most to significant numbers of community members. Insight: Community participation methods used in planning can be adapted to ensure decisive grassroots input into official local government evaluations.

(Please feel free to comment on this post.)