Experimenting with water service delivery

Coming up with a convincing elevator pitch for our Sustainable Services at Scale (Triple-S) project has long been a challenge. Which, given the complexities of the rural water sector itself, is possibly not that surprising. Whether defining ourselves (at least in part) as a complexity informed water services development lab will help, remains to be seen – but for us it is progress!

I had the privilege to spend much of the last two weeks in rainy and verdant Kampala, in the company of a big part of our amazing Triple-S country teams from Ghana and Uganda. We were there to talk about our learning and research agenda, and to reassess our approach in the light of still draft findings from our on-going mid-term assessment.

As with most mid-term assessments, the picture of ourselves that we see reflected in the mirror held up to us by our assessment team isn’t entirely flattering. Nevertheless, as you can’t blame the mirror for the face you see in it, we had little choice but to roll up our sleeves and move forward.

I interpret a large part of the identified space for improvement as revolving around the difficulty of communicating clearly and effectively what we are doing. This is, on one hand, not that surprising. Triple-S is explicitly informed by an understanding of the water sector as a complex adaptive system: consisting of multiple actors with multiple linkages and often unclear and contradictory rules of engagement. We have sought to engage with the entirety of this system in Ghana and Uganda, to work with the main actors in the system towards a shared understanding of the overarching challenge – and a sector-wide search for viable solutions. This is a very complex space in which to act!

That said, and while wanting to maintain our overall system-wide focus on, and understanding of, the need for sector wide and systemic change, we are carrying out a number of specific activities within this space and we need to tightly define and communicate these.

I really like the pair of diagrams below, that our friend (and former grant manager) Rachel Cardone did as part of a presentation that she gave when we visited the Santa Fe institute together in 2011. Rachel was explaining how the Triple-S project differs to more traditional approaches in the identification and subsequent scaling of innovation. The upper diagram describes the ‘traditional’ approach, the lower the ‘Triple-S’ – indeed IRC – approach.

“Traditional” approach to scaling innovation

Triple-S approach to scaling innovation

The main difference is the amount of time and effort that is put into the series of steps that are taken BEFORE actually starting to ‘test’ an exciting potential innovation – what Rachel calls ‘socialising the concept’.   Much of the last 2-3 years of Triple-S work has revolved around this – developing a shared understanding of the vision and challenges of providing rural water services.  However, in the last six months or so we have moved decisively into the “test in a messy real world environment” (circled in red) section of Rachel’s diagram – the innovation incubator or development lab part of our programme.

What we’ve yet to do is to catch up our externally focused communications work to this fact – and to explicitly spell out the experiments that we are currently involved in – some as lead, some as support – all of which directly address identified areas of weakness – or gaps – in existing approaches to service delivery in Ghana or Uganda.

The list below is tentative – over the next few months our country teams will spend time on more clearly defining each experiment – setting out objectives, time-frames and means of verification where these do not already exist.

I personally like the idea of supporting the creation of a development lab for the sector – as part of the move towards a learning and adaptive sector[1].  It doesn’t mean that every experiment will come with an RCT attached – but it does mean that we will seek to find and promote the appropriate level of rigour and evidence for each experiment.  As such, I see this as a natural progression from our existing work on supporting – or establishing where necessary –broad sector platforms for learning – such as Ghana’s excellent Resource Centre Network.  And most exciting of all are early indications that a number of the more advanced experiments – are leady starting to scale.

Triple-S (emerging) experiment list

  1. Use of SenseMaker software for collecting narrative data.  This experiment is largely ended, and consisted of using SenseMaker technology   to gather information in narrative from stakeholders ranging from water users to international experts.  Our successes and failures with this interesting technology are currently being written up.
  2. Service Delivery Indicators (Uganda and Ghana).  This on-going experiment concerns the development and testing of a set of indicators that look at the level of water service being delivered and the functioning of the governance systems delivering it.
  3. Mobile phones for improved water and sanitation – M4W (Uganda).  An on-going experiment testing an innovative mobile phone (SMS) based technology for reporting faults to mechanics – while linking to a national monitoring database.
  4. Field Levels Operation Watch – FLOW (Ghana). An on-going experiment Testing Akvo’s smartphone (Android) based technology for sector monitoring.
  5. Hand Pump Mechanic’s Association (Uganda). On-going support to a consortium of government and NGO partners in testing an innovative approach to provision of post-construction support to communities by small-scale private sector entrepreneurs.
  6. Sub-national learning platforms (Uganda).  An on-going experiment on the creation and assessment of district level platforms for learning and sharing and their impact on service delivery.
  7. SMS for supply chain (Ghana).  An experiment in the early identification phase, looking at implementing and  assessing a promising private sector approach to providing an integrated SMS based system to report breakdowns, order spare parts and update sector databases.
  8. Sub-county water boards (Uganda).  An experiment in the early stages of identification, with a focus on creating and assessing sub-county water boards as service providers at a level between the community and the district.
  9. Innovative financing for Capital Maintenance (Ghana).  An experiment in the identification phase, looking at the creation of financing mechanisms to support capital maintenance (major repair and rehabilitation) of existing infrastructure.
  10. Modelling post-construction support in Ghana.  Early work in the identification of a possible experiment on strengthening the capacity of district level actors to provide post-construction support.  In this phase a modelling exercise is being carried out to identify possible models and costs.
  11. Support to and assessment of impacts of SWAp/SSDP(Ghana).  On-going work to provide support to the development of a sector strategic development plan and a SWAp in Ghana.  At the limits of what can be characterised as an experiment, but we intend to follow the development and implementation of both exercised by an assessment of their impact on sector alignment and harmonisation.

It’s a long list and will undoubtedly change. However, it does give an idea of the breadth of work that our country teams are engaged in – the initial results of which are now beginning to come out and which we will seek to share as quickly and openly as possible, on this blog and more broadly.

In addition to this long list of ‘development lab’ experiments, a number of longer term experiments will run over the whole lifetime of the project. These essentially relate to approaches that the project uses to trigger and support transformative sector change. However, as this post is already far too long I’ll save those for another day!

[1] At the highest outcome level, Triple-S has identified three core strategies for achieving sustainable rural water services, namely: adoption by the sector of a service delivery approach; strengthening of home grown learning and adaptive capacity; and greater harmonization and alignment.


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