Capacity building has the power to transform organisations into stronger and more resilient service providers. However, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between being supportive and inadvertently making yourself indispensable.
By Sibongile Ndaba, Business Development Lead, Zambia
One of the major impediments to improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is low capacity in the institutions – typically utilities and municipal authorities – that are responsible for providing services.
WSUP is deliberate about building capacity in the service providers we work with to ensure that we not only help them provide improved services but that these services are sustainable. In fact, “Stronger service providers” is one of our core strategic goals which you can read about in our 2020-2025 Business Plan.
At the 2018 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, a key recommendation towards reaching SDG 6 was that institutional and human capacity must be developed in order to improve service levels, operation and maintenance of technology and overall institutional performance. Read more on our position on the HLPF recommendations.
For us, capacity building entails knowledge transfer through technical assistance as well as demonstration of innovative technologies that help utilities and businesses to better serve their customers.
But despite such comprehensive and well-intended programmes, there is a risk that capacity building may turn into a “hand-holding exercise” and achieve the opposite of what is intended. How can we avoid organisations becoming dependent on endless capacity building?
Based on our experience, here are five recommendations that can ensure that capacity building translates to skills transfer, and as a result, makes utilities self-sustaining.
This article is written from the perspective of working with utilities, but the guidance is still relevant for working with other stakeholders, such as regulators or sanitation businesses.
1) Gather evidence for institutional buy-in
Projects that show new ways of working or improved service provision often incur significant change to the status quo, and can therefore be met with resistance. In order to get institutions to adopt new recommendations, it is imperative to demonstrate the value and benefits upfront.
A pilot is a useful way to generate enough evidence so that the utility or business you are working with is fully aware of what they are getting into and can subsequently take ownership. Where a pilot project would not be possible without the utility’s participation, which is often the case, consider building on something that the utility already perceives to be a priority.
For instance, if the utility’s operations lean more towards water than sanitation, consider working with them on a water project to establish a relationship and gain their trust before you kickstart a conversation on sanitation. Once you have done that, it is easier to get their support on a different project. In this case, since sanitation would be seemingly unchartered territory, evidence is essential.
As the partner becomes more curious, the change management process accelerates, allowing the institution to put in place the necessary requirements such as human and administrative support assigned to the continuation of the project.
2) Co-design the project with the utility or business
Once you have succeeded in getting the institution to commit to the proposed project, the next step is to co-design the project wherever possible. It’s important to keep in mind that capacity building is not just a skills transfer exercise but also a change in how the organisation has typically done things. Co-designing the project is therefore a great way to ensure a sense ownership around something new.
An effective first step is to allow the utility to define the problem rather than doing it for them. This can be done through a chartering meeting for instance where you allow the utility to give you their own perception of the problem they are trying to solve and their overall vision. Such a meeting should typically be high-level, comprising of key decision makers in the organisation.
These decision makers will need to identify champions who will drive the change moving forwards. These champions should themselves be decision makers, to whom the project implementing team will be accountable. This process will reinforce institutional buy in, while also ensuring that the project becomes core to the ongoing operation of the business.
Once the implementing personnel are identified, the next steps can be fleshed out. As a supporting organisation, we find that it’s important to ensure a clear understanding of the competencies of the personnel with whom you will be implementing the project, as this dictates the capacity gaps you need to fill.
We find tools such as Gantt charts and a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) framework to be valuable at this point, as well as a risk register. The goal is to develop a project plan in which everyone feels confident with their role and expectations are realistic.
3) Strive for a blended finance or parallel in-kind contribution
In practice, this discussion will naturally occur simultaneously while co-designing the project. At the chartering meeting, strive to get the utility to invest their own financial or in-kind resources for sustainability, again reinforcing shared ownership of the project and its outcomes.
Depending on where the utility is in their budgetary cycle when you approach them, financial resources may not be readily available or at best they may be willing to make a very small contribution.
In this case, an in-kind contribution is more feasible. This may include, for example, using their marketing department staff to lead a campaign deliverable while the project funds are used for production of the campaign materials. In this example, as you’re working alongside the marketing department, you have the opportunity to co-design a wider marketing strategy as part of capacity development.
This is far more effective that outsourcing the entire campaign to a third party because the marketing department is driving the campaign without too much hand-holding. In both cases, ensure that the utility’s commitments are documented and form part of the agreement with the utility.
It might be wise to take this opportunity to introduce the marketing team to theory or practical tools such as campaign planning and reporting templates which may be new to them. Being on hand during the first use of new tools is a great way to support during the project but leaves a sustainable support mechanism in that they can continue to use the tools and train new staff to do the same in future.
4) Avoid an abrupt transition
While a funded project may have a life span, it’s important to remember the utility’s work runs in perpetuity. Therefore, a mutual understanding that the project will come to an end is crucial and ensures that a seamless transition is designed in from the start. The institutional champions who drive the change in the organisation are essential for this transition period.
With this in mind at WSUP, we make sure to check in regularly with the champions to maintain and up-to-date understanding of the extent to which the organisation is prepared to sustain the interventions beyond the project end date.
Depending on how the project has been resourced to date, and how involved WSUP staff have become, this can require change in utility-based roles or the introduction of completely new personnel to carry on with the intervention.
This has significant implications on the utility’s budget. Where in-kind contributions may have been sufficient in the past, the utility should now be looking to contribute financially. For example, if you were implementing a sanitation project with a utility on faecal sludge management and you want to ensure that the utility continues this business line beyond the project, then they should embed this into their organisational structure. This could be through changes in personnel, and budget to support those personnel.
To make this transition as seamless as possible it should be a conversation started at the commencement of the project and has consistently discussed through the life of the project so that it stays front of mind for the senior decision makers.
5) Monitor beyond the project
Many donor-driven projects, require monthly or quarterly reports on the project. These usually aren’t required after the final project report is submitted. However, it’s acknowledging that these reports are not only useful for funders and the implementing partners like WSUP.
These reports help to ensure sustainability and track whether capacity was successfully built, and the project delivered on its intended objectives. This is good business strategy and if the utility understands this, they are more likely to want to continue tracking core beyond the life of the project. This will not only keep the utility accountable but also aids future decision making and long-lasting commitment to maintaining the benefits of the project.
Core to WSUP’s work is a drive for learning and dissemination. This allows us to improve on the work we do and hopefully influence other WASH actors for the better. WSUP has many years’ experience conducting utility capacity development and as a result have created a framework that codifies our best practice.
We call this approach our Utility Strengthening Framework which not only identifies where the utility needs to improve capacity and operational performance gaps but also offers a comprehensive eight step process to inform the necessary interventions.