PEA Confessions, part IV: Of floors and ceilings

It’s been a while since I was able to sit down and write – life happens. But today I wanted to resume my PEA Confessions in order to think out loud about how we incorporate political and context analysis in aid/development projects. Back when I joined this community six years ago, one of the most interesting pieces I found was a paper by Heather Marquette and Jonathan Fisher on how to take PEA from product to process. This was before the evolution of the Thinking and Working Politically community of practice that we see today, and before approaches like “everyday political analysis”.

While I subscribe fully to the limitations of PEA reports, I also understand why such products are more frequent than PEA processes: it is easy to draft terms of reference for them, there’s a more or less obvious pool of potential writers, and the deliverables are tangible and easy to measure. Mainstreaming PEA beyond reports is much harder, of course, for a number of reasons: organizational cultures, procurement imperatives, misguided M&E expectations… But at the micro-level – the level of implementation – I am starting to think that a better heuristic for the constrained space for PEA processes would entail talking about floors and ceilings.

“Welcome to the 7 1/2 floor”

The precise role of PEA in a programme begins with a question of demand.

To the extent that political analysis “fits” development management SOPs, it tends to be as an input into design. But an input is not a process. A process has to be demanded by an authorizer (for example, a DFID SRO or a team leader/programme director). It is an artificial layer that does not quite fit into the regular management cycle, and thus a bit akin to the fabled “7 1/2 floor” featured in the movie Being John Malkovich: PEA processes tend to be accidental constructs, almost capricious, that can only be pried open with a good crowbar, and even then will make you a little bit uncomfortable.

The “PEA floor” of a programme is the minimum level of analysis that will be carried out. It is shaped by demand, as I have mentioned, but also by supply: the skills of the PEA-focused personnel. These could be managers or leaders who do a bit of analysis on the side, technical advisors who “get” politics, or dedicated PEA professionals, such as they exist and are in fact available.

A lot of effort has been put into raising the PEA floor of some aid organizations. DFID, for instance, has carried out PEA training seminars that have been attended by hundreds of advisors. And the World Bank’s Governance Partnership Facilitity was perhaps one of the most ambitious examples of trying to incentivize politically-smart work across and otherwise recalcitrant bureaucracy. That’s why we have how-to notes, a handbook for governance practitioners, or a beginner’s guide to PEA. I myself have been part of this effort, in my own little way, writing about the need to take contentious development politics more seriously.

But the PEA floor will only get you so far.

“Something under the floor, not in the plans. I don’t know!”

You can design the best PEA terms of reference, hire the best people, and still end up in an implementation dynamic that is not fundamentally different to what one may term a “conventional” project. That is because PEA often fails in the translation stage: analysis can be commissioned strategically, carried out expertly, and disseminated persuasively, and still have limited impact if a number of parallel implementation processes are not permeable and responsive to analytical insights.

That is a lesson that we learned with the STAAC programme in Ghana. It was not enough to call yourself politically-smart. It was not enough to do an inception PEA report. Even hiring a part-time PEA advisor was not enough.  The analytical process really began to have an impact when we sat down to consider how to bring together PEA, iterative design, M&E, and learning. This entailed writing new intervention logic templates, working with programme diaries, having quarterly strategy meetings and later monthly PEA meetings, doing practical scenario exercises, and having not one but two PEA-focused members of staff (one international, one national) working as a filter for technical intervention proposals and as learning facilitators.

STAAC was only able to do that because there was agreement between the SRO in DFID, programme director in the provider, programme manager, and team leader that the only real way to do PEA was to do it seriously. In effect, that consensus raised our PEA ceiling much higher than what other programmes may have experienced, even when starting from a similar PEA floor.

And that is a lesson that I have learned only gradually: the PEA floor depends on PEA handbooks, toolkits, training and demand; but the PEA ceiling depends on the willingness and ability of implementation teams to take those tools and incorporate them into a learning and strategy approach. For “everyday political analysis” to have a systematic impact you need solid analytical and practical foundations, but upon those a broader programming approach has to be built.

And with that, I leave you with a short instructional video on what happens when you only pay attention to floors and not ceilings: