December 17, 2018


Twelve tips to set up a team and establish relationships

You’ve got a better idea of the context which shapes policymakers use’ of evidence and selected an issue to work on. So, what next? Here’s some advice on how you plan and deliver your support to policymakers, staring with twelves things you can do to set up a team and establish key relationships.

Ensure your team has the ‘right’ people and organisations

Small teams, of say 3-4 people, tend to make better decisions. Your team  – at its core – will need to have the following roles to promote change: an insider who has deep knowledge and experience in the policy issue and has an understanding of the context which sustains the status quo; someone with facilitation skills and the personal and professional networks to engage with policymakers and shapers; a technical person who understands evidence related processes and practices and; a team leader who coordinates team members to bring together the technical and political dimensions of the project (and contracts in additional expertise when required).

Local research institutions may not always be the most appropriate to work with: researchers won’t necessarily have either the incentive or the facilitation skills required to support policymakers in their work.  In South Africa, a partnership with a research institute fell through partly because formal appraisal processes did not reward researchers for supporting policymakers to use a broad range of evidence but for producing and achieving impact of their own evidence. You might also want to avoid working with large organisations as they will tend to have more rules and procedures to follow, limiting staff flexibility during delivery. You may instead want to work with consultants who are adept at both research and engagement, have knowledge of how government functions and have the flexibility to, for instance, meet a government counterpart at short notice.

Make the most of prior connections and shared experiences

Expectations of something ‘good’ happening are key to fostering strong relationships, both between team members in the delivery team and between the delivery team and key counterparts (say in government). Prior contact and shared experiences can accelerate this process. This was the case in South Africa where the BCURE delivery team’s work was helped greatly by two members of the delivery team (including the team leader) and the key government counterpart both being in attendance at an ‘evidence to policy’ workshop six years earlier. This familiarity helped to facilitate a reasonably high degree of trust early on.

Base your team close to the ‘action’

We suggest the team be rooted as close to the ‘action’ as possible and where possible be made up of national staff. If important members of the team happen to be foreign and based far from where the action is taking place, immersion in context over long periods of time (especially during a large a multi-year project) is vital in helping them to build good relationships with key actors and to understand the more intangible dimensions of the context. Members of the delivery team I was part of during the BCURE work were based both in South Africa and the UK, with a key manager based in the latter. Decisions tended to be made when the manager was able to make a visit to South Africa, which limited progress somewhat. Given the importance of ongoing conversation, online tools were crucial to facilitate this, but couldn’t substitute the depth of interactions that unfolded during in-person conversations.

Establish ‘good’ team working practices

Good teams tend to communicate regularly; talk and listen in equal measure and equally among members, have frequent informal communication and explore ideas and information outside the group and bring what they learn back to the team. They provide space for ideas to be contested and challenged and the capacity to acknowledge mistakes and celebrate ideas wherever they come from. Some discussions amongst the BCURE delivery team were drawn out, whilst others were heated, as members didn’t share the same view about the focus of the project. But these were crucial in ensuring the approach the team was taking was robust with alternatives being considered.  Senior members of the team can play an influential role in promoting good team dynamics by listening to concerns, paying attention to relationships amongst members and making efforts to repair them when needed.

Work with high capacity institutions for short term change

Your counterparts are more likely to utilise your support for the good if they’ve got relatively high levels of capacity to begin with. In South Africa, the BCURE team’s counterpart scored consistently highly when assessed using the Management Performance Assessment Tool (MPAT), an initiative of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME). Staff within the institution considered evidence in their work and were subsequently motivated and committed to improving their own capacities. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with institutions with lower levels of capacity. It just means you’ll have to be more patient, take a longer-term approach and keep your ear to the ground.

Work with an evidence-to-policy entrepreneur

Where possible, identify and work with an evidence champion, ideally, one who is embedded within a government institution. A senior civil servant in South Africa, who had done much to put ‘evidence on the map’ within her institution, provided the delivery team with vital information including: formal departmental processes, the nature of relationships between different policy teams and contact details of other people to speak to. Crucially she was able to manoeuvre through bureaucratic procedures and approval processes to create space for the project to work with colleagues across the institution. However, she was constrained by the nature of relationships she had with others in the department. For instance, influencing more senior managers ‘from below’ was no easy task in what appeared to be a rather steep hierarchy.

Negotiate the role you play in relation to your counterpart

In working with partners in government, you’ll need to decide together, how much emphasis you place on getting results versus improving capacity. In South Africa, given limited personnel within the counterpart institution, an (implicit) results focus saw the UK based delivery team take a hands-on approach, managing the overall process, developing frameworks, writing papers and facilitating workshops (a situation which UK consultants in the team did not shy away from, given these activities were considered the most ‘interesting bits’). Where the delivery team takes a capacity focus, it may want to take a more reflective approach, limiting its inputs to observations and impressions. In some cases, the delivery team and counterpart institution may want to work in partnership where they both share responsibility for results whilst both are able to teach and learn in a hands-on way. The emphasis on results versus capacity may change throughout the project so you’ll need to renegotiate your roles in line with this.

Listen to the needs of your counterpart but don’t set out to meet all their demands

International development is riddled with stories of foreign consultants believing they have all the answers. But this doesn’t mean your counterparts have all the answers instead. Whilst your counterpart will have a deep knowledge of the local context, this doesn’t remove the value of what you have to offer. Discussion where different perspectives are considered is key. In South Africa the relationship between the delivery team and government counterpart was initially conceptualised as one of consultant-client. But over time, team members saw themselves as partners or collaborators where differences of opinion and in approach were freely expressed and considered.

Identify and coordinate with existing in-country policy support or evidence related initiatives

There’s a good chance your team aren’t the first to support policymakers to use evidence more skilfully. If there are others, seek out and explore how you might work together. Initially, they may well be competitive, protecting their turf as they vie for the attention of policymakers and funders. If you persist in your engagement with them, your relations with them may become more collegial and you may find your work complementary to theirs (and vice versa). This was the case in South Africa where the BCURE team provided content to an existing course on evidence run by a leading University targeting senior civil servants.

Consider setting up an advisory group

The work of a steering group can help ensure the work produced together with your counterparts is relevant beyond the set of actors you decide to work with. Their work can also put pressure on your counterparts to ensure a rigorous approach is taken during the project. You may want to approach institutions with a cross-government mandate such as Ministries of Planning, Finance, Science and Technology, or relevant high level commissions/projects located in the Office of the President or Prime Minister, to be a part of a steering group – as they can spread good practice across government. Representatives of other evidence or policy support initiatives may also be good candidates. This will help to promote coordination between and drive up standards across, your and other projects of a similar nature.

Formalise the relationship between the delivery team and your government counterpart

Most government institutions’ relations with external actors tend to be underpinned by formal agreements such as Memoranda of Understanding (MoU). In South Africa, establishing an MoU helped to govern the project especially in areas such as confidentiality and intellectual property. It persuaded policymakers from across the institution that the delivery team weren’t going to work with them in order to do ‘extractive research’. It also helped to give the perception that the initiative wasn’t a pet project for an individual but would serve institution-wide interests. However, the signing of the MoU meant that anything produced as a result of the project was confidential unless it was approved by senior management, which frustrated the funder somewhat, given their focus on visibility. This doesn’t mean you should only pursue change once an MoU is in place. Work informally if you have to (if there is sufficient trust), until the agreement is signed (which may well take months to happen).

Manage funder expectations

If the funder employs a milestone-based payment method, you’ll have to be smart in how you phrase the milestones, ensuring you strike a balance between ambition and ensuring continued cash flow. The funder will also want to ensure visibility of the project and the progress that is being made. However, there may be some unease amongst government counterparts, who may fear reputational damage as a result of problems being exposed externally. You may have to wait a long time (and urge the funder to be patient) before officials trust you and are comfortable having outputs about the project published.

In the next post, we suggest things you might do to intervene.

About the author:

Ajoy Datta:  Research Associate at On Think Tanks with a focus on improving policy influencing, decision-making and management practices.

Read more from: Ajoy Datta