Executing participatory programs at scale

What are the key elements that can help in efficient execution and the success of community led water security programmes at scale?
15 Feb 2023
0 mins read
Women building a water tank at Chopriali, Uttarakhand (Image Source: IWP Flickr photos)
Women building a water tank at Chopriali, Uttarakhand (Image Source: IWP Flickr photos)

The dictionary definition of “execution” is the act or process of executing, carrying through something to its finish. By this yardstick, many water security efforts would be found wanting. Most programs start, but rarely finish in that it is difficult to trace the training to planning to implementation on the ground. As a result, the impact they create on water security is rather tenuous and very anecdotal.
It is important to mention that we got here after years of civil society advocacy on community participation, which led governments and multilaterals to invest large sums of money in participatory programs in water security. Now that funds are available, execution needs to happen at scale. However, there are no exemplars at scale.  Community-led programs are inherently complex and our existing pilot models with the resources, expertise and the design are not exactly replicable in the programs at scale.
Government programs struggle to get community participation. Every large-scale program spends more than a year in a typical four-year tenure - creating content, training people, collecting primary data and creating plans as if there is no history of work on the ground. The collective memory loss of all the past efforts is due to lack of visibility on data from past programs and lack of trust in the data collected even when they are available.

Large participatory programs involve many stakeholders from across departments, agencies, civil society and the community. There has to be a deliberate process of bringing all the stakeholders to a shared vision and establishing a design and execution model for how they can all work together to achieve shared outcomes. Digital is an enabler that allows all stakeholders to play their respective roles and move both public and philanthropic funds towards water security. 

Based on our experiments at scale, we see three key elements to getting execution right – design, digital and deployment support.
1.     Design for scale
Programs have well defined objectives, guidelines and processes. The problem is these are written for the people who manage them and not for those who do the job. With multiple stakeholders performing similar roles, the biggest challenge for mission directors of programs is fixing accountability of the work and tracking progress.
Every program needs a phase zero as a preparatory phase to detail out the steps required to achieve the program objectives and assigning roles and responsibilities to every stakeholder. We call this the Design phase, an intense exercise that requires the core team to deliberate and decide on the tasks and expectations from every stakeholder, knowledge and information required to perform the tasks and training required to help them perform their roles. This works best with facilitation.
2.     Digital as an enabler
Technology is a great enabler when it comes to executing large scale programs. We have to emphasize the need for the right type of digital tools that can distribute the ability to solve. These are digital tools that can empower the first mile with knowledge and generate data as they carry out tasks on the ground. For example, we found the Participatory Digital Attestation (PDA) tool developed by Socion when used in combination with the Composite Landscape Assessment and Restoration Tool (CLART) developed by Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) very powerful for scaling community led natural resource management.  

The first tool is a simple mobile app that a community resource person (CRP) uses to scan a QR code at the beginning of every training – be it physical or virtual and scan out at the end of the session. This one simple scanning action pushes all the training material onto their phones and creates an attestation as a digital proof for their training. They also get a list of tasks that they must perform after the training. The tasks are purposefully kept simple like taking a picture or filling up a simple form in line with the principle of data minimization. The attestations and tasks generate data on interactions and activities performed from the ground that can flow into dashboards for the program managers to monitor the progress of capacity building and program implementation on a real time basis.
The second is a GIS tool made for the first mile and enables community led scientific planning at scale. A CRP can simply walk around his/her village with the community. The tool picks up the latitude-longitude of the spot and recommends a set of interventions based on the recharge potential of that area. The CRP can discuss with the community and decide on the intervention that suits their needs and submit it on the app. It works without the internet when on the field. When thousands of CRPs submit interventions from across the state, the CLART platform allows experts to review their submissions remotely on a website and approve or reject them with feedback that goes back to the CRP. 
3.     Deployment support
Most large programs struggle with governance. We have seen success when there is upfront establishment of purpose and the need for the appropriate tools and processes with the leadership and the core team. The deployment support involves setting up a weekly governance rhythm with the leadership and the key stakeholders of the program. The program governance is not based on the claims that the stakeholders make but on the trusted data that is getting generated from the digital tools as the frontline is interacting and performing activities on the ground.
This reduces noise, and governance calls are spent on using the data to identify risks and challenges, taking decisions and empowering and supporting the stakeholders to solve the challenges. With weekly governance backed by trusted data, the program teams become agile and more confident in understanding and resolving challenges and ensuring timely and effective execution of the program. Very quickly we found the confidence of the program team grow. They could see what’s happening on the ground clearly and take necessary action quickly.
We tried this model in a World bank funded program in Meghalaya. The objective of the Community led Landscape Management program was to train more than 15000 community facilitators across 6400+ villages in the state on managing water and natural resources so they can create a scientific plan that reflects the needs of their community while incorporating traditional knowledge.
In 18 months, the Meghalaya Basin Development Agency  and the Soil and Water Conservation Department teams were able to train more than 15000 frontline workers across the state who worked with their communities and proposed around 28000 interventions approved by experts. Trusted and open data on trained people, content and plans have been put up by the government of Meghalaya on a website. We are already seeing these trained people hired by other programs, paid for their work and the content and tools being adopted in the state.

Working with the state and supporting execution at scale requires us to invest in new capabilities and reconfigure the roles of stakeholders to establish new normals. We need to be open to bring in new partners who can support the ecosystem with these capabilities.

Based on growth projections in philanthropic, retail, CSR, and other sources of social funds, there is an estimated INR 21 lakh crore (USD  255 billion) development money available in FY 2023-24, of which the Government of India’s share is INR 8 lakh crore (USD 100.77 billion) as per the Union Budget 2023-24.  Eleven percent of the government fund allocation or INR 1 lakh crore (USD 11.5 billion) is for water, split across multiple departments. Besides this, there is also a flush of business capital in enterprises that impact water security. We have to urgently look at new ways of channeling this money so that it puts the participation at the centre, is able to focus on the first mile on the ground and build a support system that empowers delivery of solutions. This is important for water security that in turn impacts resilience to climate change.
It may be appropriate to state here that as with all successful models, we need to find ways of focusing more on the God and less on the Gopuram.
This would be essential if we are to move beyond teasers and trailers, and finish the movie.

The author is the CEO of Arghyam.

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