In 2016 a global consortium of eight organizations representing academia, the private sector, and development spheres joined together to identify locally driven solutions to the challenge of developing robust local systems capable of sustaining water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) service delivery. Members of the USAID–funded Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) — Environmental Incentives (EI), IRC, LINC, Oxford University, Tetra Tech, the University of Colorado Boulder, WaterSHED, and Whave Solutions — have spent the past 5 years testing new ideas, approaches, and tools to strengthen local WASH systems in four countries.
Providing both technical and leadership support to SWS and hosting the recent 5-day closeout event and learning series, EI learned valuable lessons about operating in the context of a learning collaborative.
Below we share five lessons that have shaped our work and explain how we adapted as we learned.
1. Walk the Talk
Ideally, pause and reflect practices should be embedded into the regular rhythms of a project to ensure uptake. EI discovered that the need for learning and adaptive management increases in highly dynamic and uncertain contexts.
EI facilitated a set of structured learning activities to create space for reflection and ensure analysis and synthesis of emergent learning themes at key junctures:
- Systematic Review Session: Researchers and monitoring, evaluation, and learning specialists met once a year to analyze and synthesize all available data and evidence. This helped the team understand how combined findings create meaning and identify emergent areas of learning, as well as themes or lessons for further investigation.
- Pause and Learn Events: Country teams reflected on learning from implementation experience and reviewed progress toward answering learning questions.
- Annual Team Meeting: The entire consortium came together for peer sharing and collaboration across teams, to review progress against the SWS theory of change and learning agenda, and to take stock of new evidence and changing contexts.
In addition to the annual learning events, SWS created space for reflection through semi-structured interviews with project teams as part of the semi-annual reporting process.
2. Monitor what Matters
You can’t – and shouldn’t – monitor everything. Through our monitoring tools, we learned the value of capturing incremental progress, in lieu of systemic change. Systems change is a long-term process with slow-moving variables. By tracking incremental progress, project teams captured emergent patterns of behavior and analyzed small contributions along the way and, most importantly, used that information to adapt their approaches.
EI worked with partners to build a complexity-aware monitoring approach to measure changes in local WASH systems, using two primary methods:
- Outcome Mapping: To track progress in influencing the behaviors and actions of direct partners on the project.
- Sustainability Scorecards: To measure the status of financial, institutional, environmental, technological, and social components of the system that are expected to influence sustainability.
SWS selected these methods for their complementarity. The scorecards provide an annual high-level assessment of critical factors that contribute to sustainable service delivery, while outcome mapping allows for the ongoing monitoring of changes in the behaviors and relationships of actors in the system.*
*For more details on the methodologies of both tools, how SWS applied them, and a summary of lessons learned and general reflections on measuring systems change read this report.