Rudo Grace Gwata-Charamba Correspondent
As Zimbabwe works towards the realisation of Vision 2030, the nation is also progressively entrenching the Results -Based Management (RBM) approach into its operations and institutional practices.
It is, therefore, only logical to fully adopt all the related principles, including a shift from action to change language.
Change language, a fundamental feature of the RBM world, focuses on and clearly expresses what is to be different rather than what is to be done, during planning and what difference has been made, rather than what has been done, as project execution progresses.
The use of change language thus, as does RBM in general, highlights the centrality of the end-user of projects deliverables, whose life is to be improved.
On the contrary, action language which was used in traditional management approaches, emphasises actions taken or to be taken, the completion of activities, all from the provider’s perspective. Typical examples of statements deriving from the project planning stage, expressed in action language, include: “We will conduct research on agricultural trends” or “We will drill 150 boreholes in 10 provinces.”
Although such statements look impressive, as they demonstrate efforts to assist a population, they merely focus on the type of activity to be undertaken without telling anything about the associated objectives or the expected effect on people’s lives.
The statements convey mere intentions, which are neither specific nor measurable, and are also liable to interpretation in many different ways. The use of action language, therefore, introduces several shortcomings that lead to poor implementation of initiatives, as it blunts out focus, stifles the assignment of responsibility and accountability for project processes and results as well as the related monitoring and reporting.
According to literature, most organisations and nations, Zimbabwe included, have continued to use traditional approaches that focus on activities and lower level outputs while using action language, rather than focus on results and use change language.
This was despite reported adoption and implementation of the RBM approach for a significant number of years.
Consequently, these entities ordinarily fell into what is termed an “activity trap,” which denotes a situation where entities get so involved in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day activities to the extent that they forget the ultimate purpose of implementing the connected initiative.
That is, implementers got “trapped” in conducting the research or drilling boreholes, for example, with limited regard for the purpose of executing the tasks or how the deliverables would affect the target stakeholders, particularly the end-users.
This ordinarily made both the associated projects and implementing entities ineffective as was the case in Zimbabwe, where a significant number of programmes were implemented, but there was not much to show by way of change in the living conditions of the population.
The entrenchment of RBM in the implementation of development initiatives is, therefore, a welcome development that is likely to effectively address this shortcoming through its principles that entail a significant departure from tradition.
On the contrary, results-based planning compels stakeholders to start by clearly spelling out, in change language, the overarching desired result.
Stakeholders then work backwards to determine the products, services (outputs) and processes (activities) that are necessary to effect such changes.
That is, all project or programme processes begin with the fundamental question: “What real-world changes are we seeking as a contribution to improving people’s lives?” This question, which provides a clear sense of the future state towards which the entity in question is striving, guides managerial choices that follow in the implementation of development initiatives, as depicted in the diagram above.
Adopting this practice, in earnest, in the design of the 100-day projects, aimed at realising Vision 2030, can prove to be highly effective in helping to enhance the quality of programming.
The related result statements, expressed in change language, would thus clearly describe the ultimate or expected, concrete, measurable changes in state or condition, in the lives of a specific group of end-users; that would occur as a consequence of planned project processes.
For example, the above-mentioned statement relating to research in agricultural trends, mentioned earlier would read: “60 farmers in X province will access information on new technologies in wheat farming and will use the techniques to improve their yields and, subsequently, their living conditions.
Similarly, for the drilling of boreholes, the statement would read: “Households in provinces will access safe, clean water within a radius of one kilometre or less, which they will use to improve their sanitation and, ultimately, their well-being.
The most significant difference between the use of action language and change language is that the latter clearly conveys expectations, facilitating a sharpened focus, and also sets specific criteria for success; elements that promote effective monitoring, reporting and learning.
Such effective results-based monitoring and reporting, also in change language, enhances the potential for project success as it goes beyond telling how resources were expended to articulating how the project is contributing to the achievement of the ultimate desired changes (results).
That is, the reports produced include descriptions of changes induced, by project activities within the target population as well as credible evidence to back up the reported achievement.
The practice entails rightfully placing the target population, rather than the implementers or their activities, at the centre of the related stories of change.
In addition, the reports explain why and how the change induced will contribute to the achievement of higher-level results. The use of change language, therefore, helps to ensure the continued relevance of the project and its processes as well as promote transparency and learning from experience.
The levels efficiency and effectiveness are also enhanced and clearly demonstrated at the same time.
This utility of change language is primarily attributed to the embedded notion of measurability, introduced through the clear description of quantifiable, expected and achieved changes. Experiential evidence shows that such clarity and measurability were conspicuously missing in the implementation processes relating to development projects in Zimbabwe, a significant shortcoming that also helps to explain the past failures of the initiatives.
Another pitfall associated with the use of action language is reporting on the completion of activities rather than the actual benefits or effects of completed activities.
This impedes understanding of the value of work performed and the linked accountability, among implementers, as well as appreciation by other groups of stakeholders.
Experiential evidence shows that the RBM approach, adopted in the context of a culture of results where, among other issues, usage of change language is the norm, carries immense potential for improving the design and implementation of development initiatives.
In Zimbabwe, the current efforts towards inculcating a culture of results, notably the urge to shift from business as usual to a focusing on achieving results, and the continued implementation of 100-day initiatives are commendable as they signify the full institutionalisation of the RBM approach.
Sustaining this process, including total adoption and use of the associated change language, can, without doubt, significantly boost the potential for making Vision 2030 a reality.