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During my time in Malawi I learned a lot about the challenges of rural safe water access, and about the challenges of addressing those challenges. I left believing we still have a lot to learn about how change happens, and how to support processes of improvement. This post is to share where I'm heading with my research, and to invite your thought contributions.
I see myself as a practitioner, and never expected to do a PhD. After recently concluding four years in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders Canada, working on governance and service delivery issues in WASH, I now find myself at the University of Cambridge beginning doctoral research
First, the premises behind my research. I’m interested in service delivery, which is the management of services from interactions between users, providers, and policymakers. Around these interactions is an environment that helps service delivery change – and hopefully improve – over time. This environment includes development organizations, civil society, academic institutions, and so on. There can be many influences that support or hinder service delivery improvements.
Service delivery and the surrounding environment that influences improvements
The second premise is that social engineering often fails. Importing ideas like specific definitions of “good governance” are unlikely to meet specific, local needs, and foreign ideas are potentially less likely to be trusted than ones developed locally. Appropriate ideas therefore need to be nurtured to develop locally, and this can require a process of experimentation and discovery rather than planning and implementation.
My curiosity about these issues led to the PhD. I believe there is something new to be understood in the network of organizations and stakeholders that create the environment and processes influencing how service delivery develops.
My research therefore focuses on two questions:
- What types of collaborative environments support service delivery improvements?
- What types of processes of stakeholder interactions support service delivery improvements?
I plan to study cases where service delivery of rural safe water access is improving. These are improvements measured by positive changes in service delivery providers or authorities – the practices of those creating and sustaining change locally – not simply change caused by infrastructure installation.
Proposed country case studies
Up to five countries will be studied as cases where service delivery improvements are being reported: Ghana, Malawi, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, and Bolivia. These different cases could help identify patterns in stakeholder networks and interactions that support change, even if the contexts and specific solutions differ. In each country I will conduct a network mapping exercise with stakeholders individually to identify who they interact with and how. Analysis of the combined network can then identify network characteristics common to environments supporting service delivery improvement. Analysis of organizational documents can further identify patterns of interactions that support service delivery improvements.
Two main challenges confront my research. The first is about defining success. There are indicators showing where access is improving, but these gains can easily be driven by committed infrastructure investments, and may be short lived. It is much harder identifying successes driven by improvements in local service delivery systems. Any thoughts on cases assessing institutional improvements rather than infrastructure investment would be welcome.
Secondly, I am keenly interested in the applicability of the research findings. I hope the research can help practitioners interpret and shape environments conducive to service delivery improvement. This, hopefully, can further support the improvement of local systems to find contextually appropriate solutions as an alternative to supporting implementation of pre-planned reforms. I believe this alternative has great potential, and your thoughts are most welcome.
I am preparing to visit Ghana for April and May to pilot my research methodology, and I hope to be sharing updates periodically as my research progresses. Please feel free to be in touch with thoughts or suggestions. I am determined to ensure the research stretches beyond the confines of academia, and your perspective helps make that possible.
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