Published on: 09/03/2021
Using learning hub 'model projects' to test new approaches for projects and service delivery.
A few weeks ago, I shared some of the insights from a yearlong capacity assessment study of the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASA). In it, I made a case for the water sector to do more to develop qualified and competent project managers, alongside putting in place robust processes and tools to enable effective project delivery. However, the main question remains: How can we transform such a large and complex organisation into an efficient and effective project delivery organisation?
Eng. Clement Kivegalo, the Director General of RUWASA, believes there are complementarities between infrastructure delivery and capacity strengthening, especially in terms of supporting institutions like RUWASA to improve project delivery capability. In our meeting in Morogoro, he outlined the opportunities he sees.
What needs to be done will depend on the local context, he says. “In a sector like ours with huge infrastructure deficit, we need to think how best to deliver infrastructure in a way that serves the communities whilst addressing capacity gaps of our staff and the organisation at large,” says Kivegalo, adding that there is more we can do to use infrastructure as a mechanism to bridge capacity gaps.
His comments remind us that as we seek the best way to improve project delivery capability in the water sector, it is important to consider critical issues that are shaping the realities of water service delivery today. Below I flag a few of these issues:
An obsession with building infrastructure to expand coverage. Many of us love infrastructure. In the water sector, construction of infrastructure is often prioritised over sustainable service delivery. As a result, incentives around planning and financing usually focus on initial construction and not on life-cycle costs. Besides, even with a focus on infrastructure - investments in sanitation are often overlooked. Our study has found that in the past two years, assets, or capital expenses account for more than 90% of the total budget allocated to RUWASA, with almost all the funds ring-fenced for construction of water projects.
A skewed focus on infrastructure projects makes the sector highly technical, largely driven by an infrastructure approach to problem solving. Systemic issues related to governance, institutions, people, process, and tools are often ignored.
Politics. The reality is that water is a highly politicised sector. In such an environment, it is politics which determine who gets what and when. In a study we did in 2017, we found that in Tanzania the number and complexity of water infrastructure constructed increases closer to elections, indicating that the bulk of water infrastructure is possibly being built for political gain.
As a results, policy and investment decisions often focus on achieving quick wins in the short run by constructing new water infrastructure to expand coverage, at the expense of strengthening systems for managing infrastructure and improving service delivery.
Disparity between investments in infrastructure and sector capacity. Usually the share of investments to improve overall capacity of the sector is very small. For example, reports show that out of US$ 1.4 billion investments spent in the first phase of the Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP), only 2% went to capacity building activities. In addition, while funding commitments to the second phase increased to the tune of US$ 3.3 billion, only 3% is allocated to capacity building largely through earmarked projects supported by Development Partners.
Besides, even with limited funding available, most capacity building activities use traditional approaches which emphasise classroom-based training methods rather than on-the-job professional development, mentoring and coaching arrangements. Also, most of the issues related to people: motivation (incentives), attitudes, behaviour, as well as the soft skills related to leadership, management, and ethics are insufficiently addressed.
Numbers and skills mismatch. We still have a long way to go to get sufficient water and sanitation engineers, technicians and artisans that are required to develop the water and sanitation sector. For example, for a developing country like Tanzania, the typical recommended ratio is 1 engineer to serve 2,000 people. However, studies show that in Tanzania one engineer serves 5,930 people suggesting that the country has a shortage of engineers.
Apart from that, there is a concern about the quality of graduates being trained at vocational and higher learning institutions. There is evidence which shows that most graduates (artisans, technicians, and engineers) coming from vocational and higher learning institutions lack proper skills needed at work, creating acute shortages for highly skilled human resources in the sector. The skills gap is further compounded by weak linkages between the public, private, and education sectors, resulting in a disparity between the supply and demand for skills.
Technical Assistance. Technical Assistance (TA) is one of the most used approaches by Development Partners when they want to strengthen capacity in specific areas, be it in education, health, infrastructure sectors etc. However, experience shows that, while there are some pockets of success in the use of TA, the effectiveness and acceptance of TA in the water sector is somewhat limited. Most of the officials we interacted with expressed concerns that most TA programmes are often driven from the top, and are designed based on simplistic assumptions, pursuing technical solutions, ignoring power, politics and the need for behaviour change of public sector workers, leaving little room for addressing systemic, institutional and context specific issues.
Given the complexity of delivering transformation in the public sector, these issues point to the need to think even harder how best to improve project and service delivery capability in the water sector, within the current operating environment.
We need to be realistic. Introducing systemic change in a public entity such as RUWASA can’t be done overnight. As such we need an approach that will allow incremental change in the way we do things whilst guaranteeing continuity of project and service delivery.
Therefore, in our study we propose that the approach to the RUWASA transformation be pivoted around Learning Hubs ‘model projects’. In this case we define learning hubs ‘model projects’ as:
‘the purposefully selected water and sanitation infrastructure projects which, with the help of an ‘external facilitator’, will be designed and implemented by multidisciplinary teams within RUWASA in way that provide a flexible and an innovative learning environment to develop new processes, tools and appropriate skills for RUWASA and its staff to improve efficiency and managerial performance in the planning and delivery of water and sanitation projects and services’.
As such, we view learning hub ‘model projects’ as ‘living labs’ that we will use to test new approaches to projects and service delivery alongside creating a critical mass of ‘champions of change’ within RUWASA. It is these champions who would influence and facilitate the swift adoption and use of new project management tools and processes across the organisation. This approach helps to strike a balance between the need to address infrastructure deficit and helping RUWASA improve project delivery capability within the current operating environment.
On implementation, we suggest that RUWASA establishes six learning hubs in line with Tanzania mainland geographical zones. Each learning hub will have a set of model projects. A maximum of 10-15 projects is recommended as a manageable number to provide the scale needed for implementation in a variety of settings.
RUWASA will set the criteria for selecting the model projects, but it is envisaged that the projects will comprise both water and sanitation projects representing a diverse set of complexity, technologies, and hydrogeological conditions in both rural and urban settings. To avoid failure and build confidence, we propose to start with simple model projects and add on large complex projects over time.
Figure: Delivery approaches and techniques
To ensure cost effectiveness, we propose that the projects to be implemented are carefully chosen from a list of projects with committed funds through the National Water Fund (NWF), and/ or those projects supported by Development Partners such as the World Bank, UKAID and USAID. Selecting model projects from a list of projects with committed funds implies that no additional costs would be needed for delivering those projects. However, RUWASA will have to allocate some funds to facilitate the management, coordination, and implementation of learning hub activities. If fully implemented, it is envisioned that the learning hub model projects will be used to:
We believe that this approach allows RUWASA to deliver infrastructure needs and address capacity gaps at the same time through system strengthening, reskilling, and upskilling of existing staff whilst bridging the gap between the supply and demand of skills in the water sector.
To kick-start the implementation of learning hub model projects, RUWASA has established a multidisciplinary change management team to spearhead the process, with support from an independent ‘external facilitator’. The team is headed by the director of service delivery with the support of a Quality Assurance Manager who will report on progress made to the management team on a regular basis. We look forward to continuing learning from the transformation journey with the hope that the lessons generated from this process can be used to inform the delivery of capacity development programmes to other institutions in the public sector.
Disclaimer: Lukas Kwezi currently works for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) as Water and Sanitation Adviser, based in Dar es Salaam. He writes blog posts in his spare time. Though he may talk about the work he does in the sector, this is neither a corporate nor a political blog and the opinions and ideas expressed here are solely his own, not those of his employers.
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