Every year, there is a degree of uncertainty about the United States foreign assistance budget. Funding swings between priority sectors and regions are not uncommon. But this year, the administration’s “skinny budget,” with a nearly 30 percent total cut proposed for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State and potential organizational restructuring, is quite different.
The immediate push back from Congress and former military leaders calling out the critical importance of funding for diplomacy and development means the uncertainty is likely to continue for some time. Proposed cuts would affect different aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations to varying degrees. With careful planning and adaptive management, however, organizations can continue to advance their mission and objectives despite the uncertainty.
How to respond to uncertainty? Here are four ways.
A natural response might be to wait and see. But aid organizations would do better to act now and plan for the unknown as much as possible. Realistic planning — including scenario planning — can help reduce costs and delays. Using available evidence from monitoring and evaluation can make it easier to prioritize activities and resources. Thoughtful change management can help leaders and teams adjust to new program environments. And clarifying staff roles and business processes can help identify efficiencies and improve performance.
1. Plan for different scenarios.
Organizations can use scenario planning to map out different paths to follow, depending on changes to the country or funding context. Having scenario-based plans in place, using indicators and feedback loops to monitor assumptions and risks, and identifying trigger events that require program adjustment all enable organizations to adapt to change swiftly, based on clear criteria. This process is also useful in planning for uncertain political or economic situations. Social Impact has worked with clients to train staff in scenario-based planning. In one African country, SI helped the client develop a strategy incorporating scenarios for various political outcomes. This set the groundwork for evidence-based, agile management, using a scenario surveillance system.
2. Look at the evidence.
Evidence-based decision making will be essential to absorb budget changes while continuing to use resources efficiently and effectively. Many program and impact evaluations of foreign assistance activities are publicly available sources of information. As a recent GAO study notes, “high-quality evaluation helps agencies and stakeholders identify successful programs to expand or pitfalls to avoid.” But that evidence, as well as monitoring data collected throughout implementation, must be contextualized and used to inform tough decisions. USAID’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting framework emphasizes strengthening existing processes, including stakeholder consultation, that use evidence to inform and adapt programming. The USAID Liberia Mission is actively using evidence-based design and adaptive management. This includes coordinating with other donors and focusing support on successful initiatives. Such reflective and flexible programming allows funders to target their resources most effectively based on current, on-the-ground realities.
3. Shore up the team to manage change.
Solid team cohesion is vital to high performance, but teams need support to deal with rapid change. Strong management, aligned with sound organizational development principles, can support staff and lead change in a shifting environment. Effective change management then helps organizations, leaders, and teams understand, adapt to and more effectively implement a new strategy. Clear, consistent communication is the heart of successful change management. Leaders need to be honest about what they know and what they don’t know, while committing to provide updated information when it is available. For their part, staff need to be able to trust their leaders, but as professionals, must also build tolerance for ambiguity.
4. Build efficiency and morale, too.
Programming during periods of rapid change is also a time to clarify staff roles and examine business processes and systems. Team-building activities can increase confidence and capacity to work effectively and efficiently. Business process improvements can support that work — “the will and the way.” With careful facilitation, business process mapping is a powerful team-building intervention in itself, while also identifying efficiencies. Working together, colleagues identify areas of misunderstanding about job roles and organizational processes that not only lead to improved performance, but also better collaboration and morale.
Although development organizations face formidable challenges, we have a body of experience, tools, and skill to draw upon.
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Elise Storck is vice president for strategy, performance and capacity building at Social Impact. She manages capacity building, strategy, and training programs designed to increase organizational effectiveness through participatory design, rigorous project management, and clear performance metrics.
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