Recently I attended the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 18th Annual Civil Society Forum on Human Rights.
This year’s topic was: “Beijing+25: Taking Stock of Progress on Gender Equality”. I am an organisational systems and strategy consultant, having been based in Prague for 25 years, I now live in West Cork.
The organisation was excellent, the participants both high ranking and grassroots, the moderators did their job well. The excellence of the proceedings was marked by well chosen, well-spoken, thoroughly qualified presenters who not only knew their stuff, they knew their audience.
The event was a credit to Ireland’s role in the larger world.
The only weakness was that there was no real statement or understanding of how this historical record, findings, questions and concerns were to be handled.
To what end was the collected wisdom — the output of the forum — to be put?
There is simple value in taking a moment to look back, assess the current situation, and compare the progress, changes, and challenges that bridge that gap. “Simple” in the sense of elegant discourse.
There was straight talk and questions; engendering a positive, hopeful atmosphere. Yet at the core of the presentations and questions was a frustration and worry.
The reasons were touched upon briefly. The forum was not designed to solve all problems, but the gathering had a lot to say. Therein lies the problems.
As policymakers and contractors, there is so little time allotted in these to discuss the dynamics of the system within which (against which?) the group is working or to plan for the next wave that sustained success evades us.
Oh! The arguments screech out. We have made progress! Yes. Officially we must always graph it “up and to the right”, as there is no other quadrant acceptable. Action item lists are neatly checked off. And the users of the programs sit, bent from the complexity of the issues.
A deep breath and a step back were the bookends of this conference — an excellent place from which to consider the next phase. The bookends were “Then and now”, consider the situation with which we are dealing. And closing with ‘what is next’.
But only in the shadows of the break room do people question the approaches and processes. Do the things we do still work? The after-conversations need to be placed squarely on the agenda.
The first issue, faced head-on and unabashedly by the participants, is perspective. Then and now. The gap between.
What happened and what did not; what happened and then fizzled. Perspective over time, but what is so often side-stepped is perspective of context.
Progress on gender equality, on any social issue requires radical change. Change to someone else’s comfort and preferred status quo. So there is push-back.
That was the clear experience and concern of the group: losing ground. It is on the basis of the perspective that lays the groundwork for the next planning phase.
Push-back is one element of any analysis of the dynamics of any system. The reactions to actions constitute either (and often both) a reinforcing, self-perpetuating cycle or a self-correcting loop of consequences. We got where we are exactly as the result of decisions we made, and how we implemented them.
The processes we put in place created the context for the beneficial or sub-par use of the outputs by the people intended to avail themselves of the “improved” opportunities.
Exemplary performance —getting the results with the best implementation — is to anticipate and mitigate; to construct the new context so it creates a flow to where you want to go. This is an ongoing process. Working with these dynamics improves chance for some success.
Lastly, terminology. There is always another new-and-improved program. It helps to get funding. With the reinforcing decisions over the last 30 years, the terminology has suffered.
Experienced, educated and competent programme and project managers use words in so many ways there is no meaning, or ability to measure.
When decision-makers do not know the difference between “strategic” and “tactical”, then they cannot understand how to construct and link policies and processes of the system they are trying to change. And so we go on.
M. Mari Novak
- This readers opinion was originally published in the letters page of the Irish Examiner print edition on 31 January 2020.