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The Black Box of Governmental Learning – A Conversation with Raoul Blindenbacher

October 13, 2010 | Tobias Sommer | On the Job |

sdclan_bigBy Tobias Sommer
Good governance is one of the keys to contemporary development cooperation: It is considered the magic solution that allows developing countries to make the big step ahead. It sounds simple—yet it is obviously complicated to achieve. It needs the political will to promote good governance through possibly far-reaching reform, the knowledge about how to do it, and especially that governments learn from their own or others’ experiences. Just providing information and instructions to governments does not suffice for this: They also have to transform the acquired knowledge into action. Unfortunately, this crucial transformation process is far from understood. After all, a government, with its complex composition of actors and political environment, cannot be expected to learn and behave like an individual or an ordinary organization.

In the recent World Bank publication The Black Box of Governmental Learning (Executive Summary PDF), Raoul Blindenbacher1 (in collaboration with Bidjan Nashat) sheds some light on this question. I had the opportunity to talk to Raoul Blindenbacher (RB) and get some answers to questions that had emerged while I was reading his book.

Based on 20 years of experience as an organizer of governmental learning events and on theory insights from pedagogy, sociology, and political science, RB developed an eight-stage template to organize conferences, training, and e-learning events for governments called the Governmental Learning Spiral. In the book, the concept is described in five different types of learning events. The core ideas behind the approach are:

  • The knowledge in democratic governance in today’s complex and fast-paced world is extremely contextual and has a very short half-life. Universally valid normative knowledge has become practically nonexistent.
  • This implies a dissolution of the traditional teacher-student concept: When no normative knowledge exists, everyone’s knowledge can be important. Therefore, everyone is at the same time a knowledge holder and knowledge receiver.

One important implication of this is that a careful selection of participants is crucial for the success of such an event. First and most important, they need to hold relevant knowledge that other participants are looking for. Second, they have to be part of the existing institutional, political, and societal power structure that gives them the influence to create the political environment that allows the transformation of the newly acquired knowledge into effective policy actions.

These selection criteria imply that many key stakeholders, with potentially opposing interests, participate in the same event where they have to open up and share their experience with all the other participants. How does this work out in practice?

RB: People who attend our events are well informed about the event design beforehand. They know that they are expected to share their knowledge in a spontaneous and unfiltered way, but they also know that they can expect the others to do the same. Thus, Governmental Learning Spiral events pick people up where they realize that they lack knowledge and need it from whatever competent source. From this perspective, conflicting viewpoints, hierarchies, and dissenting political opinions do not matter anymore.

In a wider view, this comprises a rejection of concepts such as North-South or South-South learning. As long as the knowledge is interesting and relevant for the participants, the address and the source are irrelevant. However it is crucial that the knowledge to be learned is original and translated to fit the given context of a particular government. An example of this was a workshop we organized about the federal system in Germany. Among others, we invited South African (SA) participants to discuss the German constitutional reform. They were qualified to do so because the SA constitution, adopted in 1994, was a close copy of the German model. For the German participants, including the Minister of the Interior, it was a unique experience and extremely instructive to learn from the comments and reflections. Of course, the SA invitees were flabbergasted when we asked them to attend as experts a learning event for German federalism reform. This was a complete reversal of the traditional North-South learning, but it made sense in that context.

The book highlights that learning from both the successes as well as mistakes of others can be an efficient way to progress. The selection criteria imply that often high-ranked politicians are invited, politicians that are hardly known for openly sharing their personal experiences. How can one “tease out” these stories?

RB: First of all, it is crucial to establish conditions and rules under which a trustful and constructive exchange can take place. Therefore, all our meetings fallow a specific set of communication rules, among them the Chatham House Rule.

Then of course the social dynamics are very important. In my experience, when someone – ideally someone high-ranked – starts to share his “mistakes” and others see how much they can learn from this, they almost start to overbid each other with their worst stories. To come into this social momentum, participants need to be motivated and have to feel appreciated as knowledge holders. This means that everyone – regardless of political rank – needs to be treated equally well.

One of the striking features of the Governmental Learning Spiral is the role of the so-called learning broker, a person who assumes the tasks of defining the knowledge perspectives, establishing the event design, selecting the participants, moderating the event, and finally post-processing the outcome—tasks that have in traditional events been divided among three or more people. Why this concentration of power and responsibility?

RB: Actually, I would claim that the role of the learning broker is a rather modest one. Imagine the responsibility and power concentration of experts in conventional learning events, where they instruct officials how to improve their governmental system. They do so based on normative good governance models, which by nature claim to be the sole existing knowledge for a given problem and as a result often neglect contextual social, political, and economical conditions.

The fact that the learning broker is expected to assume both content- as well as process-based tasks is a key feature of the Governmental Learning Spiral. The content to be learned shapes the design of the learning event. Thus, a learning broker needs a profound know-how about the relevant perspectives regarding a given subject, as well as an excellent network of stakeholders that represent these perspectives. Based on that, he or she designs the appropriate event structure following our eight-stage template.

Two months ago Manuel Flury wrote on this blog about the dilemma Train4Dev Joint Learning events face, and how content and form of these events are becoming subject of negotiations. In the Governmental Learning Spiral, this becomes obsolete because the learning broker assumes these tasks—with the benefit of an inclusive and demand-driven event organization. However, the downside of this approach is potentially unpredictable outcomes, such as what knowledge is learned and applied. For me, this implies that for an optimal application of the Governmental Learning Spiral, the initiator of the event has to reprioritize its own interests and be open to whatever the outcome of the event will be. This is a challenging task in times where donors increasingly reaffirm their own interests in order to please the legitimate expectations of their constituencies and funders.

1Dr. Raoul Blindenbacher is Advisor at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) on a secondment from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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