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Experience documentation on e-discussion campaigns with consolidated replies: A dlgn learning project on donor support for local government finances

August 02, 2011 | Adrian Gnägi | Methods & Tools |

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Bertha Camacho for sdclanAdrian picture for sdclan

by Bertha Camacho and Adrian Gnägi

Solution Exchange pioneered a structured way to conduct e-discussions, called “e-discussion campaigns with consolidated replies”. The structure of those e-discussions looks like this:

  • A query is posted on the e-forum of a network and experience carriers are invited to post replies within a pre-determined time frame. Frequently, the moderator supports members with the wording of the query, making sure the query is short, easy to understand and appealing to be answered.
  • Moderators lobby experienced network members to post replies in the e-forum. This lobbying is worked mostly over the phone. According to Solution Exchange, it is the major time investment of the e-moderator.
  • When the discussion campaign is over, the e-moderator sums up the discussion in a “consolidated reply”. The e-moderator condenses the main messages into an easy-to-understand analytical summary and includes all individual contributions in full into the document.

This post reflects on the first “e-discussion campaign with consolidated replies” conducted by SDC’s “decentralization and local governance” network (dlgn) In 2010, dlgn had implemented six demand oriented learning projects. The objective of learning projects was to capitalize own experience, learn from others’ experience, and reflect on research results, in order to come up with state-of-the-art knowledge. One of the six 2010 dlgn learning projects was on donor support for sustainable local government finances. The timeframe of the “local government finances” learning project was geared towards the March 2011 dlgn face-to-face meeting in Sarajevo, where it was planned to present and discuss preliminary results . Adrian Gnägi was one of the “owners” (managers) of the “local government finances” learning project; Bertha Camacho was the dlgn e-moderator.

The learning project focused on donor support modalities for sustainable local government finances. The learning process consisted of four main stages:

1)    A review of the international state-of-the-art on donor support for sustainable local government finances. This led to the identification of a five-category analytical framework, which was used to structure the whole learning process and the e-discussion.

2)    On the basis of the analytical framework, eight case studies on SDC’s and partner’s experience were drafted by SDC and partner field staff. The case studies were peer reviewed and expert reviewed, and where needed they were translated into English.

3)    The conceptual framework and the results of the eight case studies were summarized into a “synthesis paper”, which served as basis for the e-discussion and for the three workshops on the project that took place during the dlgn face-to-face meeting in Sarajevo.

4)    Finally, the main findings of the learning project, including the inputs from the e-discussion sessions were incorporated into a user friendly, multi-media LernBuch.

The three-week e-discussion campaign on the project was scheduled in the month preceding the Sarajevo face-to-face event. The e-discussion had four objectives:

  1. to familiarize all network members with the project,
  2. to include experiences from SDC funded programs not covered by the eight case studies,
  3. to test, validate, and adapt recommendations,
  4. and to give voice on the project to network members who could not attend the Sarajevo meeting.

As dlgn moderator, Bertha Camacho was in charge of planning and conducting the e-discussion campaign. When preparing, it was important to clarify expectations with the owners of the learning project: what were their aims and expected results of the e-discussion campaign? Then, the duration and the timing were defined. It was agreed to have one-week discussion slots for each query. But since a five-week discussion campaign was judged as too heavy on network members’ time, the five topics of the learning project were regrouped into three queries:

The e-discussion was announced and promoted via E-mail and in the Network’s Newsletter. All network members were formally invited to share their opinions and thoughts during the discussion. They received a guide on how to avoid mail overload and the Netiquette for e-discussions. They were informed about the duration, timing and method of sharing. The e-moderator made sure that participants knew they could get any support needed and have any question clarified. Personal contact was established, either by e-mail or by telephone, with all those network members known to be “experience carriers” on the different issues. “Knowing who knows” proved to be a difficult issue; thus the search involved project owners, the Focal Point, and consultants.

In order to brief network members about the preliminary results of the learning project, each week a short summary of the synthesis paper was prepared as an opening statement on the discussion topic. The role of Bertha Camacho as e-moderator consisted mainly in engaging participants in the e-discussion and in preparing the consolidated replies. Thematically, the e-discussion was led by the owners and by the experience carriers. Once the discussion on one topic concluded, a thematic summary was prepared by the owners of the learning project. Later on, participants agreed that these summaries were very helpful, mainly to all those who could not read all replies sent. These summaries inspired others to contribute to the discussion, too.

The discussion language was English. Considering the diversity of the network, members were provided the option of sharing and posting in other languages. A few replies were received in French. Some members, who did not participate in the e-discussion, later mentioned that language became a barrier once they had to read all the posts in English. In that sense, one of the lessons learned is that in order to foster participation in different languages  thematic summaries should be translated into other languages, in this case, into French and Spanish.

During all three weeks, participation was rich. In the end, a total of thirty-two dlgn members had sent one or more replies to the e-discussion. For some network members, the timing of the discussion just ahead of the face-to-face meeting was not ideal, since there were many competing demands on their time. But that timing did allow, as the workshops in Sarajevo showed, for most participants to be well prepared on the subject and to get to know each other in advance. For the e-moderator it was a great opportunity to meet network members online, who she had never met before. “And of course, the great advantage of e-exchanges is such that once I met everyone face-to-face, it felt as if I had already known all those who participated in the e-discussion”.

Once the online discussion campaign was over, replies were assembled into “consolidated replies” for each of the e-discussion sessions. The consolidated replies include: the list of all network members who shared or contributed to the topic; their respective e-mail addresses; the analytical summary of replies received, and all the replies in full according to the reply sequence. They also include any resources or links that were shared during the e-discussion. The preparation of the consolidated replies required a careful editing of each of the responses received. It was important to eliminate typical shortcomings of forum contributions (spelling, grammar, contextual issues etc.), but at the same time, keep the meaning of the replies as they were shared. Respondents were encouraged to check whether their posts were reproduced correctly in the consolidated replies.

An e-discussion useful for participants needs considerable e-moderation time:

  • Planning: aproximattely 20 hours spent (includes: meeting with project owners, concept writing and revision, preparation of questions and summaries of synthesis paper)
  • Implementation. apriximattely 14 hours (includes: individual contact mails to around 28 people, follow – up mails, some telephone calls , group mails, reading of answers and additional invitation mails to other participants)
  • Reporting: aproximattely 20 hours (includes: elaboration of initial summaries, elaboration of three consolidated replies and final revision of three consolidated replies, adding responses received late)

E-discussion campaigns provide advantages other exchange modalities might not have, though:

  • The owners of the learning project received feedback and assessments from all over the world in a very short time span.
  • The a-synchronic mode in which e-discussions are conducted allowed participants to respond whenever they were ready for it.
  • The consolidated replies are a reader-friendly way of documenting rich exchange. If the e-discussion sessions are rich in content and successful, the elaboration of the consolidated replies is only the reproduction of such success!
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