The value of tracking the impact of peer learning

By Catherine Anderson, Governance for Development Team Lead, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

This article was delivered as a mini-masterclass during the Learning Forum at the UCLG Congress in Daejeon, South Korea on October 11th, 2022.


Three domains are critical for institutional performance and thus are the key spheres of influence when thinking about institutional reforms. These domains, which are by now well established in a long literature of social science research, are:

  • (i) The inner workings of an institution, or the manner in which an organization’s managers have to structure the organization to achieve its mandate or responsibilities, its internal efficiency and autonomy. Here we look at critical ingredients like the leadership and management capacities of an organization, the extent to which staff or officials are delegated responsibilities, internal communication, mechanisms for managing disputes and so forth.
  • (ii) The external environment, or that institution’s reach or interaction with society. For example, its principals or masters (political patrons, policymakers, etc.), financiers, donors, beneficiaries and support or advocacy networks.
  • (iii) The socio-political context in which these institutions operate, with particular reference to any social and political nuances or particularities. 

“To be tractable, durable, and legitimate, an institution must resonate with a country’s social and political fabric, align with the incentives of the makers and implementers of policy, and take into account the social context in which the broader population lives”.

“By focusing on delivering results and generating legitimacy at the same time, successful organizations develop internal efficiency and create the external constituencies needed to secure and maintain political support” 

“Broad social support makes it politically attractive for principals to support reforms and can help restrain excessive political interference. In all of the cases, a network of technical leaders and practitioners ignites and sustains the successful trajectory” (Barma et al. 2014).

So why do we consider Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Learning: How can it contribute? What are the attributes of P2P Learning that make it an important and useful means by which to build and reform institutions? Let’s consider this next.


The attributes of P2P Learning

The first is that, unlike technical support and cooperation,
P2P Learning is about collective problem-solving. Rather than parachuting solutions in from the outside, P2P Learning is about sharing experiences and assisting one another to find creative solutions to complex problems. Through this problem solving approach, P2P learning is also more conducive to supporting a process of iterating and adapting those solutions to fit the specific context or problem you may be grappling with.

Second, unlike other forms of learning and development, P2P Learning taps into both cognitive and affective learning, which can lead to higher levels of internalization and ownership of a change process. What do we mean by affective learning? If you google it, you will find it refers to learning that relates to the learners interests, attitudes or motivations. That is to say, not only does P2P Learning develop skills in reasoning or analysis, but it also gives heavy emphasis to things like building trust among peers, providing opportunities to share experience, enabling supported self-led problem-solving, and by working through a community or collective. 

Third, is through its ability to connect diverse groups of stakeholders, and here the experience of UCLG in this and other projects is particularly impressive. P2P Learning is rarely about working one-on-one, but rather involves bringing together a network or community of actors for collective learning, which has substantial flow-on effects both for an institution’s inner workings but also for the way it might interact with its external operating environment. In this regard, two points are worth noting: first, the evidence shows that key internal institutional dimensions like leadership and a shared sense of mission only works when cascading through a group; and second, engaging with a group of networked affiliates as you do through P2P approaches can assist you to engage a wider range of internal and external stakeholders.

Finally, there is the potential to enable shared experience. As you will already know, given this is highlighted by UCLG’s own research, capacity building principally happens through experience, enabling and unleashing shared experience, not through the capacity development or conventional learning approaches. And here again, P2P approaches are considerably better placed than other forms of knowledge or technical transfer to enable shared experience, through a cascade of engagements.

So that’s the aspiration or ideal of P2P Learning. The question then becomes, of course: Does it deliver? And here we have some work to do. Indeed among the (by now extensive) P2P networks and alliances, the dozens of communities of practice and knowledge hubs that exist, no matter the subject —whether they be trying to solve the problems of migrant integration, climate change adaptation or the grinding endeavour of reducing human poverty and suffering— the singularly biggest and most difficult challenge they all face is in effectively tracking and measuring the impact of P2P Learning as a means to provide a proof of concept as it were.


Enabling MEL for more effective peer learning: some novel ideas

There are new partnerships and collectives working to try to meet this challenge, and
I’m delighted to say that EIP and UCLG are in partnership for exactly this reason. So what is emerging? What are the new ideas about how to enable Monitoring Evaluation & Learning (MEL) for P2P Learning?

  • The first is that, although we know peer learning can enable this cognitive and affective learning, that doesn’t automatically mean that it will deliver institutional or organizational change. In order for us to achieve this, we must think about the change that you want to see at individual, institutional and perhaps even contextual levels, and then map the way in which P2P actions and activities might contribute towards enabling a cascade of change across institutional, organization and contextual levels. We often like to think of five capabilities that might be enabled:
    • The capability to commit and engage, including the vital concept of volition (i.e. the power to make and act on your own decisions).
    • The capability to carry out technical and logistical tasks and to generate development results (ie. extent to which new skills are absorbed, institutionally and individually).
    • The capability to relate to context and attract others. The ability to forge, manage and sustain key relationships is essential as an organizational/system capability in order to add traction and momentum for change. This includes the ability to comprehend complex problems and break those down, and the ability to mobilize collective action.
    • The capability to balance diversity and coherence. The ability to level power asymmetries and enable inclusion (ie. within a partnership, individual behaviours, and institutions or organisations).
    • The capability to adapt and renew. The internal ability to detect when implementation challenges or strategies need to change –incrementally or fundamentally– is essential to any legitimate and durable institutional reform process.
  • Second, if we are clear about the change we want to see, mapping actions and entry points for change, it would be most helpful to take a systems approach to our monitoring, evaluation and learning – not only tracking results or outputs but also tracking how learning is used and absorbed with an organization or wider socio-political environment, as well as the response of multilevel actors or interest (ie. positive, reinforcing new learning or obstructive and suspicious of change).
  • Third, agree who tracks what and how, and monitor the health of the partnership as part of that process. The joint sense of purpose and collective learning can follow all stages of the peer learning process, from getting everyone involved in collecting data to monitoring results. At the same time, tracking the health and effectiveness of the partnership together with the effectiveness of peer learning can provide a more nuanced picture of the success or failure of the partnership, and assist to draw attention to and address any perceived imbalances.
  • Fourth, enabling change is a messy, contingent and non-linear process. It does not conform to a single logframe, and if it is half good, it would deliver initial results and think that’s the end of it. If, however, we really want to deliver results we need to be in it for the long game and to regularly assess and redraw the navigational map of how to achieve change together. Theories of change and theories of action are precisely that, pure theories, but applied and adapted to realities in practice, these mechanisms can be powerful navigational tools to measure progress and enable iterative course correction. 

For fear of presenting as a cliché, dare I say that this is more an art than it is a science. In connecting people with diverse experiences, across a diverse array of knowledge and cultures, particularly in the way that UCLG does, we’re only halfway in the struggle to enable effective, legitimate and durable change. Now is the time to take the experiences that we have of P2P Learning and to iterate, adapt in response to the lessons learned and to more schematically track the changes to which P2P contributes, so that P2P Learning can deliver its full potential.

Catherine Anderson
leads the governance for development team in the OECD’s Development Cooperation Directorate, delivering multidimensional policy work on governance, anti-corruption and illicit finance. She is also Head of Secretariat for the Effective Institutions Platform, a partnership platform hosted by the OECD that works to identify and enable more effective partnership practices in development cooperation. Specialising in economic and public sector governance and reform, Catherine has contributed to the field through several OECD, WBG and academic publications [including among them recent work on ‘Enabling Inclusive Governance – the Theory and Practice’ (OECD, 2020); a knowledge series on effective peer to peer learning practices (2021), as well as cross country research titled ‘Institutions Taking Root: Building Successful Institutions in Challenging Contexts’ World Bank Group, 2014]. Prior to joining the OECD, Catherine was Senior Public Sector Specialist in the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Division of the World Bank Group, living and working in the East Asia and African Regions and has also consulted for several development organisations and the private sector. Catherine has an LLM in Law, Governance and Development, from SOAS, University of London, and Undergraduate Degrees in Law and Pol. Science from Victoria University, New Zealand.


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