As an avid and committed reader of Digital@DAI, you have no doubt come across our extensive coverage of the Cambodia Development Innovations (DI) project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). My colleagues have chronicled efforts to address flooding by building hardware with locally available parts, the project’s design research with civil society groups in Phnom Penh, and everything in between. With a mandate to strengthen Cambodia’s civic tech ecosystem and facilitate connections between civil society and the local tech community, DI was one of the only USAID projects that focused on technology and innovation ecosystems. But alas, all good things must come to an end—especially when the mission has been achieved and staff have worked themselves out of a job.
Two DI basic video trainees getting ready to interview school children in Kandal Province in 2017. Photo courtesy: Chandy Mao.
After a remarkable body of work over six years—such as working with Cambodian partners to design and test more than 80 technology-enabled solutions, building a comprehensive ICT4D toolkit optimized for a Cambodian audience, training Cambodian civil society groups in digital storytelling for the social media age, and smashing the digital gender divide through digital literacy programs for girls and young women—this award-winning project closes this month. Three months ago, consultant Laurie Pierce and I dug into the entirety of DI’s accomplishments and failures. How so? By interviewing more than 40 DI partners, beneficiaries, users, and high-level stakeholders. We distilled our findings into a set of recommendations for those of you who want to tackle the wild and wonderful world of innovation-focused civil society programming.
Our analysis resulted in three major findings:
- Adaptive management over DI’s lifespan improved activity focus and quality. From the beginning, DI learned more from its failures than its successes and applied that learning to make real-time programmatic changes. This led to more targeted program objectives and offerings, which in turn led to higher-quality interventions and improved program outcomes.
- DI catalyzed behavior change among partners, beneficiaries, and the private sector. Over the program’s lifespan, DI demonstrated different approaches to doing business with its partners, beneficiaries and other stakeholders. DI facilitated mindset shifts for its partners, who then began modeling and institutionalizing DI processes and practices in their own work—especially adaptive management, applying a user-focus, and managing with empathy.
- DI assistance, networks, and convening power increased partner credibility, attracting the attention, support, and respect of government ministries, international donors, and the private sector. DI positioned itself as the country’s primary nexus for a budding civic tech ecosystem. By attracting major private sector players, the public sector and donors, DI brought together disparate actors, thus consolidating the civic technology ecosystem.
We believe DI has achieved its original goal of “fostering an ecosystem of tech-enabled civil society organizations and Cambodian suppliers of technology solutions to help civil society use information and communication technologies to improve their programming, reach, and impact.” DI became a more responsive, effective, and targeted program at each iteration, with results and outcomes more relevant and enduring with each passing year.
This success begs the question: How can other organizations or groups replicate DI’s role in the civil society or innovation space? Below are our suggestions, grouped under common programmatic problem areas.
Improving Activity Designs and the Co-design Phase
- Build a rapid activity co-design process into every future program
- Encourage more partner investment in proposed activities
- Apply human-centered design principles throughout all activity stages
- Strike a balance between quantity and quality for trainings
- Engage young people as information and tech disseminators
- Tailor all program content to the local context and local language
- Consider different manifestations of sustainability
Streamlining Funding Processes and Mechanisms for Partners
- Minimize bureaucracy and regulatory obstacles while emphasizing agility and responsiveness in grants management
- Simplify fixed award amount grant milestones and deliverables
- Explore alternative funding mechanisms for smaller activities
Providing More Tailored Integrated Assistance to Partners
- Offer an individualized integrated service suite that complements grant funding
- Segment partners by capacity and skill level to target appropriate support
- Couple entrepreneurship training with digital skills training for an integrated skills development package
- Select and customize mentorship recruitment, retention, and coordination
- Hire an appropriate number of capable staff across all areas of the program
Optimizing Communications with Programs and Activities
- Recruit a well-staffed strategic communications and/or social media team
- Develop a strategic communications plan
- Build in strategic communications support to partners
Fostering Relationships and Managing Perceptions and Expectations of Civic Technology Programs
- Provide a comprehensive orientation to partners
- Foster collaborative relationships between civil society groups, social enterprises, and local tech companies and service providers
- Reiterate program goals, roles and responsibilities with current and potential partners
Championing a Collaborative, Adaptive, and Learning (CLA) Culture
- Enshrine CLA culture at the program design and implementation stage
- Invest heavily in rapid or design research
- Hold regular program-level reflection, lessons learned and strategic review sessions
Cultivating, Expanding and Solidifying the Civic Technology Ecosystem
- Invest time to understand the local tech ecosystem and the existing civil society/tech nexus
- Pull in the private sector, public sector, or other development actors, where interests align
- Link partners and initiatives to each other
- Promote existing civic technology networking events and encourage other organizations to host them
We strongly urge other tech-focused programs or innovative civil society projects to learn from DI’s mistakes, adapt DI’s successes to their local context, and take these lessons to heart. Ultimately, DI did what it set out do because it filled a real need in the ecosystem, respectfully listened to and partnered with its constituents, and thoughtfully responded to changing needs on the ground. May other development programs be so lucky.
Download the full DI consolidated results & learning assessment here.