Week 50: Feedback loops – new buzzword, old practice?

a diagonal line of illustrated outer ears (pinna) with the word 'listen' above

Recently, I had the good fortune to start collaboration with The MasterCard Foundation, which is strongly committed to what it calls ‘listening deeply and elevating voices’.

This organisation is one of an increasing number in international development expressing more than a superficial interest in ‘client feedback’. ‘Feedback’ has emerged as a hot topic, alongside other terms such as feedback mechanisms, accountable aid, feedback loops, constituent voice, transparency and accountability, and even a feedback lab.

However, creating feedback loops is essentially what monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is about. One-off evaluations, for example, constitute a single feedback moment about the efforts being evaluated, an opportunity to assess if plans are proceeding well, how people are experiencing change efforts or what is and is not working. Routine monitoring allows for continual ‘feedback loops’, providing regular insights on progress made and alerting to any emerging issues that need adjusting to ensure the program keeps on track.  So, why do we need to discuss feedback as a new perspective in monitoring and evaluation? What is this trending topic about and what is its relevance for the field of evaluation? What do advocates feel it adds to existing M&E practice?

Listening and reading got me wondering about whether this term – and its practice – is any different from (participatory) monitoring and evaluation and beneficiary assessment, both of which have been around for several decades.

At its most basic, references to ‘feedback’ are about listening to the experiences and preferences of the people who are expected to benefit from change efforts. Terms vary depending on sectoral focus. For efforts stemming from commercial engagement, such as financial services or agricultural value chains, it is common to hear about ‘client feedback’ or ‘client voice’. Those involved in advocacy may refer to ‘citizen feedback’, while those involved in service delivery may refer to ‘beneficiary feedback’ or ‘recipient feedback’.

So why this surge of interest? Reading through the growing references (see hyperlinks in this blog), I get the sense that for different reasons, many people and organisations simply feel it is ‘time to listen’ to the women, men and children on the receiving end of aid efforts. Where development efforts have become about procedures and protocols rather than relationships, feedback can re-humanise efforts. From an effectiveness perspective, feedback makes sense to develop a better product or service. And feedback can empower.

Given the many ways in which the term is used, it is important to be clear about how feedback is defined and how it is used or, in other words. its purpose. So, let’s think about feedback on what to whom.

I’ve noticed that some may talk about a ‘loop’ but refer to a one-way flow of information, about providing information.

One way that information can flow is from ‘clients’ to those implementing, assessing, or funding. Some refer to this as readjusting accountability mechanisms to listen more explicitly to those whose voices are otherwise excluded (Jacobs 2010). While this is a critical addition to an otherwise narrow focus on, say, intervention outputs, it is still about upward accountability.

When turned around, a one-way feedback flow can also be about putting information into the hands of citizens who can then use that to challenge political structures and power inequalities. Work on  ‘transparency and accountability’ has generated boundless examples of how monitoring data on government performance is being used to empower citizens and hold the state accountable. Whittle (2013) gives an example of providing citizens with information about politicians’ level of corruption; citizens were then able use this when deciding who to vote for. The World Bank has picked up on this version of feedback as a means to urge more responsive governments, and refer to it as ‘citizen engagement’.

And then there is the dialogue version of feedback, when it involves an exchange, an actual loop or multiple loops in which the information is shared and discussed between stakeholders.

The Listening Project spoke of the need to listen, hear and then act. Another, particularly clear, example has been from the field of peacebuilding that has defined feedback as a genuine loop in terms of ‘the collection, acknowledgement, analysis and response to the feedback received’.

These references to feedback include examples of CBOs who have deeply rooted feedback mechanisms as part of collaborative action, such as Dee Jup’s empowerment indicators work. Another example from SPARC views social change as a learning process and has invested in exchange between collectives of urban slumdweller activists. Without calling it ‘feedback’, for decades the slumdwellers’ work has been governed by feedback processes that let citizens drive how resources are allocated and co-create community services. 
”…change … emerges from the daily interactions and discussions at so many levels …”. (Patel 2007).

Keystone’s work on ‘constituent voice’ refers to the potential to “shift power dynamics and make organizations more accountable to primary constituents”. For example, by using similar benchmarks, organisations can compare with peers to trigger discussions on what matters to those in need. While many examples are still about sharing citizen views to those making decisions, in (re)defining success and ‘closing the loop’ with a response to feedback, feedback mechanisms can go well beyond upward accountability.

My impressions so far are that ‘feedback’ experiences appear focused mainly on collecting client or citizen perspectives through application of known methods of beneficiary assessment and participatory M&E, with new inspiration from information and communication technology for scaling up feedback opportunities.  It is not about specific ‘new’ methods but more about making listening to recipients, clients, and citizens a common practice in international development efforts – and doing so at scale. As Bonbright and Whittle say, it is both the right thing to do it and the smart thing to do.

Many operational questions require scrutiny, as Davenport writes in the Guardian: “While we are optimistic that prioritising citizen feedback has the potential to change how development is done, …. the concept lacks consistent vocabulary, principles, accepted best practices, and reliable measurements.” Sorting out who is giving feedback to whom, what feedback is provided and for what purpose, and what potential there is for ongoing dialogue, will be a good start to disentangling the many different ways in which the term is currently used. And, given that methods and approaches for soliciting and using feedback have a long-standing practice history, ‘the feedback’ advocates can glean many critical ideas from those experiences.

What examples of feedback that have changed the way organisations or citizens operate can you share? Are there specific methods being used for feedback mechanisms that are genuinely new, from the last 5 years or so? What are your questions about making feedback effective in practice?

Figure: Feedback focus - one way or interaction?


Feature image source: Listen, by Ky on Flickr

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