How adaptive are ‘Adaptive Management’ programmes in a crisis like Covid?

I wrote this with guest bloggers Jane Lonsdale and Rosita Armytage – I’m an adviser to their governance project in Myanmar, which provides the subject matter for this post.

The Coronavirus has provided the perfect natural experiment, buffeting aid programmes of every stripe and testing their ability to respond. Here’s some views directly from an Adaptive Management programme, Myanmar’s Centre for Good Governance, outlining what we’ve been doing and the lessons we have drawn so far on the rollercoaster weeks since Coronavirus hit.

CGG, a £4 million DFID-funded programme that aims to support enhanced local governance, is a live case of adaptive management at speed. The expats had to evacuate mid-March; a week later the office closed and all national staff in four locations shifted to working from home. A moment came just before it happened when we thought ‘oh no, we’re going to have to change our entire programme’. Within an hour the whole team was coming up with ideas. Within four weeks, we had designed and commissioned new Coronavirus-related work across all our programme streams.

CGG had been set up to work adaptively – to test approaches to tackle the ‘wicked problem’ of local accountability in a country undergoing a significant and bumpy transition towards democracy. We had focused attention on two sub-national testing grounds, but were increasingly finding entry points at the national level. Among the most important was the engagement with the ‘General Administration Department’ (GAD) reform process, following the transfer of the department from military to civilian control in December 2018. As the critical interface with the people, with over 14,000 village level administrators, transforming people’s experience of the GAD remains a critical step in Myanmar’s transition.

As the crisis started to take root in Myanmar, much of our planned work was put on hold. With face to face meetings, public gatherings, and travel to remote areas no longer possible, we were in danger of losing many of the opportunities we had worked hard to create. But all has not been lost. While the challenges cannot be underestimated, COVID has also created unexpected opportunities on both policy reform and the realities of implementation. Seven weeks later, we are well on the way to balancing responding to short term needs with support for long longer-term systemic change. 

A key learning point is that the ability of a programme to adapt quickly mainly depends on what you have in place before the crisis hits. We identify five main factors:

Still from the animation. Credit: CGG

Staff who are on the same page: We have a lot of thinkers and political smarts in the team who come up with new ideas fast, including national staff with political access who can influence decision-makers with creative thinking. When the outbreak hit, one of CGG’s national advisers got in touch with his government contacts and offered to help produce a Public Safety Announcement (PSA). Within hours, he was heading for the capital, Naypyidaw, with an animator friend to agree a script with senior officials. He and his wife did the voiceover themselves to save time. The animation went from first idea to final product within 3 days and was then uploaded by the central government and on all the ministries’ Facebook pages. While the production of PSAs was not core governance work, it enabled us to build an important relationship and a broader conversation on the next steps for the GAD response.

Flexible design: DFID had designed CGG with flexibility in mind – with a broad set of agreed outputs and a rolling approval process to release funds. This flexible framework enabled us to come up with ideas and implement them the next day, without losing time to realign log frame and monitoring frameworks. Trying to predict or pre-plan for a shock like COVID isn’t possible. But having a pre-agreed process for decision-making that allows change has allowed us to adapt in a deliberate way. We also have an overarching framework that enables an incremental approach to testing out new ideas fast, with feedback loops that inform our overall strategy.

A broad set of relationships: CGG staff are networked into all levels of government within Myanmar, as well as ethnic armed organisations, civil society, and the donor community. We found that the various tiers of government moved at different speeds – fast at the centre (as with the animation), slower at state and village levels. The ability to cross check approaches and explore entry points across these levels has been critical. The pandemic led to a rapidly evolving political context – for example some civil society organizations saw their room for manoeuvre expanding, just as others found it closing. Finding entry points to share experiences across actors and between levels is something that we think will remain critical in the road ahead.

CGG Facebook Page

Donor support and pressure: Although DFID’s funding was flexible, it came with pressure. We were asked to pivot fast and find a new relevance. The added pressure helped. We wrote a new plan every week for four weeks as we grappled with how to adapt at speed, and where the opportunities and problems were emerging. We needed it to anchor the team/programme, because we were getting three new ideas coming out a day and needed to give the team some stability – a sense of what was in/what was out.  It was an intense four weeks – we were genuinely exhausted by Thingyan (the New Year Water Festival in Myanmar).

Flexible working style and structure: With expats out of the country, having empowered local staff on the ground has been a great asset. The CGG team already had a flat team structure – and brainstorming across the team – with lots of constructive challenge – is the way we had been working prior to COVID.  We use the asset of time differences in the new virtual working arrangement to develop proposals overnight to keep work going in the morning. Keeping everyone engaged has not been a problem for a team that is used to using WhatsApp to coordinate rapidly evolving projects.

Seven weeks since the shift, we are starting to see the new normal emerging. Less jumping and more shaping; as we get our efforts moving together around a number of common themes we expect to be key to the medium-term response. We feel stronger for this process, as COVID has provided the opportunity to push through some tricky changes. A few that are important are:

•            Breaking the silos: bringing together governance and health teams within DFID to start thinking and working on common problems and solutions. Working with Myanmar’s government, we have developed a wider set of entry points with the departments responsible for rural development and social welfare, which have been more fluid and creative in crisis response mode.

•            Valuing the informal: Quick and trusted delivery is leading to more sustained engagement. We are constantly being told ‘your assistance has been so fast and so useful – responsive to exactly what we asked for’. Rapid response, although sometimes imperfect, has built relationships for the future.

•            Tackling old issues in new ways: COVID has created an opportunity to increase our engagement with Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and rebuild dialogue in the context of a stalled peace process. It’s early days, but there is a significant opportunity to help shape policy based on the common needs of people in government and non-government-controlled areas.

A new push on inclusion and discrimination: With new dimensions of vulnerability rapidly unfolding, including an influx of migrants, expected increase in domestic violence or perception of inequality of response, there is hope for a new focus on issues that find their origins in politically sensitive and fundamentally ‘wicked’ development challenges.

Responding to COVID will require a shift in how we work – and having the ability to do so in-built in programmes affects our ability to harness the potential opportunities that this creates. Not everything we do will work, but this is true for any adaptive programme. The biggest challenge is responding in the short term while maintaining a long-term view on the ‘big changes’ we are trying to support.

The Centre for Good Governance (CGG) is funded by UK aid and implemented by Cardno.

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5 Responses to “How adaptive are ‘Adaptive Management’ programmes in a crisis like Covid?”
  1. Everything I know about the CGG I learned from this article, so I hope this comment isn’t too far afield. All of the bolded subheadings the authors provide as pandemic lessons for adaptive management are the right ones, I think. And, as the authors conclude, “having empowered local staff on the ground has been a great asset.” They were alluding to a loss of expat advisors, but in my experience, this is just as valid in local efforts where adaptive management does not often reach down to the frontline but typically leaves the interpretation of local context to higher-level managers who are also expected to make adjustments based on data coming into the program. I was invited by Evidence to Action (E2A) to write a blog on the topic of adaptive management in the age of COVID-19 drawing from recent experience in Niger (it appears on the E2A site: That project was very different from CGG in myriad respects and the team structure may be “flatter” in CGG than I’m imagining, but I wonder if their frontline is really as empowered by management to formulate problems and solutions as it could be (and Myanmar presents understandable challenges in this regard). But perhaps it is, and that’s great; I really appreciated that the authors are focusing on tools and techniques to facilitate frontline inclusion.

  2. Graham Teskey

    This is fascinating and well done to the team. But. And there seems to be a rather big ‘but’. If this is what constitutes ‘adaptive management’, then surely every extant aid program in the world can now be called ‘adaptive’. All aid initiatives are now being asked to respond in often quite fundamental ways to Covid-19. But this is not adaptation. It is responsiveness. This is not mere semantics. What drives adaptation is completely different to what drives responsiveness. The key thing about responsiveness is that it is driven by major unforeseeable changes, events or national or international crises that are just overwhelming and are impossible to ignore, such as the adoption of federalism in Nepal – and now Covid-19. By contrast, adaptation is about responding (changing course, adding new activities, dropping failing ones) out of deliberate reflection and choice – and doing so within the financial year, bypassing the all too often straitjacket of donor work planning and budgeting requirements. Such ‘adaptation’ comes about as a result of real-time monitoring, learning and assessing, and making conscious decisions to change course or add new investments – in circumstances where the line of least resistance would be to do nothing. Or at least just plough on with the agreed annual plan. Adaptive programs need to build in system for MERL that will enable them to learn and adapt as they go. It is impossible to plan for ‘responding’ to unforeseeable events and crises, by definition. Projects the world over are now finding that out. And the response is undoubtedly not due to even the most sophisticated adaptive planning systems or management processes. It is a rewrite in response to crisis.

    • Duncan Green

      V useful distinction Graham, but I think you may be missing the point. Isn’t the question, does being an adaptive management programme prior to a shock enable you to be more responsive when the shock comes? As you say, every programme will be trying to respond, but do AM progs do it better? (may have to order the T shirt….)