Myth 1: Accountability and flexibility are incompatible
Policymakers often assume that by allowing the flexibility to change programme activities and deviate budgets without prior approval, donors cannot track spending, link activities to outcomes, or stay accountable to stakeholder interests. We have learnt that it does not have to be either or, and that certain processes can simultaneously enable flexibility and accountability.
Firstly – justification after the fact – qualitative reporting, and ensuring frequent communication between implementers and donors during the delivery phase can help explain why and what changes were made, as well as how budgets were spent. Secondly, setting boundaries – it can be agreed in advance that changes to the programme remain within a subset of activities, or that budgets can be spent without prior approval up to a predetermined amount. Lastly, planning – building the expectation of change and identifying some alternative activities from the outset can help to guide programmes during emergencies, whilst managing stakeholder expectations.
With these factors considered, donors can stay in the loop and report to stakeholders without inhibiting quick responses by those on the ground who know the situation best.
Myth 2: Flexibility is about acting flexibly in the moment, knowing when, what and how to change
It was established that this ‘operational’ flexibility is only part of the story. Practitioners may have an excellent insight into what is needed, but this also needs to be supported by both institutional and relational flexibility for flexible approaches to be effective.
Those participating in the project found it useful to distinguish between these different types of flexibility, to understand where (and by whom) adjustments are most needed. The guidance that was produced explains how this applies at different stages of the programme cycle (preparation and planning; proposals and contract writing; implementation and monitoring).