Learning in Public Policy contexts: Review of “A Guide to Peer-to-Peer Learning” (OECD, 2015)
What if recipients of foreign aid would be directly involved in structuring the way the money is spent? What would policy makers learn about the internet as a public good, if they joined in on hacker community events? How can I work together with my neighbours and my municipality to tackle the problem of speeding traffic in my street?
With such questions in mind, I engaged with“A Guide to Peer-to-Peer Learning”. This guide, targeting learners, and facilitators in the public policy space, is a collaboration between Matt Andrews, professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, and Nick Manning of the World Bank, and .
The reason they’ve compiled a guide is that they see
“a strong current interest to shift the focus for achieving improvements in public organisations and in public service delivery from pre-determined solutions to more applied approaches for supporting reforms in contested and complex contexts”
The guide gives an interesting look at how peer learning is applied in policy making. As part of making the guide, the authors have studied 52 initiatives where civil servants were in some way linked to their civil servant peers in other contexts to learn from each other about policy issues relevant to them.
Based on these initiatives, and their own experience in peer learning facilitation, the authors deconstruct several phases of a peer learning program, which they present as the backbone of peer learning program design:
Phase 1a. Curation of topics,…
The first step is to understand what the important topics are within a group of learners. Here it is essential to base the learning needs assessment on people, and what those people are currently doing.
The guide is a little light on examples, but we’ve found it works well to think of this like brokering connections around topics of active intrerest to people. For larger unconferences, we gather different community ambassadors to find common topics. For smaller, more in-depth programs, we have 45-minute ‘calibration’ calls with every participant, to understand their world and challenges.
Phase 1b …and then engagement
Once you understand the topics, then you can find ways to draw in wider group of peers, and engage them in the program to start their learning.
The authors only mention the importance of appropriate formats, and tools to support engagement, but unfortunately provide no guidance in this publication. It’s solid advice though, that’s easy to underestimate. For example, it might seem simple and easy to gather a group of 6 entrepreneurs for dinner and have them advice each other, but that often ends up with one person dominating the conversation. Structured formats like Fixer Sessions have been honed to allow delegating complex problems to a multi-disciplinary team of experts, with consistently actionable results.
Phase 2. Ongoing learning, and engagement.
Keeping a rhythm of engagement going is important for learner progress. However the authors research for the guide finds that this is rarely done. Most peer learning initiatives are one-off. Another interesting point about this phase is that initiatives rarely measure the things that peer learning delivers on (eg. relationship building), but rather measure activities, and formal products that result from the learning.
When we built the first Lean Startup communities at Leancamp, we had this exact struggle. The reason is that participants become more aware of the ways they can pull value from the community, and how to deliver value themselves to others. This experience is lost when the event is organised as a one-off, but it was hard to keep momentum in each of our 30 cities. You make all the investments in get the community together, but there’s no awareness building with the participants around optimising the value that the format provides.
Phase 3. Achieving learning outcomes.
For sustained learning, and getting organisational support, the authors argue that comparison of the learning achievement of programs with predefined learning goals important, but comparison is rarely performed.
“Examples of more successful peer learning initiatives are clear about the kinds of peer sharing and learning they hope to generate. However, most peer learning engagements do not specify the details of what kind of learning is expected or hoped for.”
Feedback, and course correction based on feedback has become the basis of how Source conducts peer learning. For different program design, we always tailor feedback systems to support the direction towards the overall program goals. For instance in the Leaders in Innovation Fellowship for the Royal Academy of Engineering, we’ve set up feedback with the learners in such way, that we can monitor whether we’re on track to addressing academic engineers’ entrepreneurial mindset during the delivery. How to really measure if learning happened is one of our main challenges at Source.
Phase 4. Diffusion from the individual to the organisation
In this last phase the focus is on promoting the learning structure that learners have gone through outside of their organisation, and applying those inside.
Our Source alumni are instrumental for propagation of peer learning. We involve alumni as mentors for new participants. For in stance in the online course we developed on African Entrepreneurship, we used insights from interviews with participants to the Africa Prize for Engineering as course material for budding African entrepreneurs to learn from.
Interesting points from the guide:
- Matching of peers should be on appropriateness, rather than seeking out a matches with best-in-class by default (which is often a bias that leads to a miss-match)
- Recognition that learners need to be helped with a format for interaction, and collaboration, rather then leaving peers to themselves to figure out.
“Practitioners actually involved in reforms are centrally important to peer learning because of the tacit knowledge they have about the practicalities of reform”
- This statement relates to what we see at Source, that peer learning works best in fast-changing, frontier environments.
- Design matters for peer learning
“Emerging evidence suggests that peer learning is effective but there is a need to carefully design peer learning initiatives when it comes to the content and especially when focused on tacit knowledge transfer.”
- Create safe space, where politics is removed from the actual learning goals. Tied to this in the public policy arena is also the importance of authorising peers to collaborate.
- There is a benefit of combining peer learning with training, where peer learning elicits sharper demand for specific training content.
- One of the main principles of peer learning we at Source share with authors, is that success is determined by what the learner becomes.
Critiques on the guide:
- The definition on peer learning is opaque, and doesn’t distinguish itself from other types of learning. In this guide it is defined as:
“learning that involves exchange of knowledge, and experience with each other”.
- Matching of peers on an individual level by a facilitator is identified as key to succeed in peer learning. But there is no guidance on how to actually facilitate those connections.
- The guide focuses on peers who collaborate in the same domain (civil servants). But it doesn’t mention the forging peers by bringing people together from different domains (which is something we do a lot at Source).
- The use of the word “guide” in the title, creates expectations that the work provides guidance for design. However, there is little actual guidance, other than some questions that the learner or facilitator can ask themselves in each of a subsequent set of phases. Also “correct tooling” is mentioned as critical to peer learning, but neither what is correct nor the tooling is explained.
The Guide is an interesting peak into the state of the art in of the understanding of peer learning in leading organisations like the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Its authors point to the emergent nature of peer learning, and that design needs to be better understood. This is reflected in the struggle you can sense in critical aspects of their writing, where they try to a) get the reader to understand what peer learning is, and b) indicate how to design a learning program. The upshot is that this work is more an interesting collection of insights on peer learning then it is a guide.
The conundrum of writing a guide on peer learning to make it scale, is that the value of peer learning is best explained by participating in it. It’s hard to convince otherwise. Secondly, peer learning design can ultimately directly support the agency of the learner, making scale dependant on what the learner does with that agency. This conundrum is captured nicely in this last quote from the guide, where the authors say:
“On the one hand, facilitators target peer learning ‘at scale’ (in countries and organisations and cities) — given a theory of change that results at scale require diffusion of lessons across a significant body of individuals — but on the other hand the peer learning actually happens more discretely in the hearts and minds of individuals, partaking in specific personal relationships.”
The indirect outside impact on the organisation, or on reform, thus depends on what the learner does with their agency. But the introducing more peer learning in the context of policy making can only lead to useful developments.
Imagine how a hard-to-grasp-yet-critical topics like climate change would reform, if policy makers could start collaborative relationships with science fiction writers to make visions of climate impact. Would policy makers in Flint, Michigan, have responded sooner to the disaster, if Egyptian engineers, accustomed to dealing with distributing drinking water to the population under high scarcity, would helped figure out options for quickly and affordably providing alternative water sources for the time that was required to fix the lead water mains? I can only guess policy making would start coming to grips with its fast-changing environment.
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Interested to learn more about our experience with designing peer learning programs on 5 different continents? Check out our http://peerlearning.guide