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Lessons Learnt: the policy advocacy lab experiment

Leveraging Advocacy Labs to Solve the Public Problem of (UN)-Employment

Reflections by Matron Muchena


I am an Associate at SIVIO Institute. My responsibilities include the day-to-day coordination of several activities within the Centre for Civic Engagement. In our centre, we have, since (26 August 2023) been experimenting with the idea of advocacy labs. The big idea is to make sure that we broaden participation of ordinary citizens in processes of advocacy. We currently have three labs on (i) unemployment in Zimbabwe, (ii) corruption and (iii) price instability. My reflections in this blog focus on the Advocacy Lab on (un)employment. All our labs run on virtual platforms.

The Lab started with a total of 30 participants, housed in two different WhatsApp groups. The messages or content shared were going to be the same, but as we get into the discussions it differed slightly due to the kind of responses we got. The first call to introduce the lab process was done on the 22nd of September 2023. I will now get into the step-by-step activities in the lab and my reflections below.

STEP 1: First call – kick off meeting

We started the first call on Zoom to introduce the lab and we realised that only a quarter of the confirmed participants had joined the meeting. We then did a follow up through direct calls and got others to join. With those calls, it turned out that others had not seen the meeting invitation which we had shared that same morning through WhatsApp messages and even the ones shared the previous week via email. Others indicated that they had network connectivity issues and others had busy schedules that could not permit them to join the meeting. We eventually started the meeting with 22 out of the 30 participants which is a good number. Most participants were excited about the lab process and would ask questions to get clarity on the subject. The meeting was very interactive.

Lessons Learnt

  • Direct phone calls are more effective measure of follow up unlike using emails and WhatsApp messages.
  • When there is a cause of concern people can use own resources to try and solve the problems i.e., no one was funded to join the meeting.

STEP 2: Sharing of the 1st meeting notes, reading materials to understand the lab process and the policy advocacy process

We realised that the same people who were active in the Kick off meeting showed the same kind of energy/interest in the materials shared, those who were not participating still could not even acknowledge seeing the materials and even opened them. Individual follow ups were done and those who were not participating still maintained the same pace but would have promised to contribute and participate.

Lessons Learnt

  • When it is a voluntary process it is a bit difficult to continue pushing for improved participation
  • We should maybe give people information to consume gradually, as others may feel overwhelmed.
  • It is important to do a follow up individually to just see if the information was received well, you get to understand may not have seen it.

STEP 3: Introducing the gathering of concerns stage

This stage was introduced by sharing of the gathering concerns masterclass as an audio and the survey that participants would use to gather concerns in their different communities. By the end of the day, only a couple of participants had shared the survey and got some responses. By the end of the week, we realised that we still had half of the group who had not shared the survey or did not get responses from their communities.

Lessons Learnt

  • We need to allocate more time towards the gathering of concerns in order to get more response and to start making follow ups on the process.
  • We need to be more proactive at every stage to check how the process is going rather than assuming that people are doing what we asked them to, if that was done, we could have gathered more concerns than we got.

STEP 4: Clustering concerns

With two of the facilitators engaged in this process we started organizing the concerns gathered from the survey responses and put them on the jam board using sticky notes. We began the process of clustering them under different themes that we saw emerging from the response. We realised the responses were a lot and we were also having challenges of identifying the themes that we saw emerging. We turned to the team of facilitators to help us figure this process together then we shared the themes that each one of us has come up with. The clustering ended up being done by five individuals.

Lessons Learnt

  • Facilitators need more training on clustering.
  • Clustering concerns as a group is way easier and faster as we got to see similarity in the themes developed, it was easier to narrow into 5 major themes.

STEP 5: Sharing the document with clustered concerns

We shared the clustering we had done with the rest of the participants and asked them if there are some concerns left out and if the themes tally with the concerns they had collected. Participants agreed that the clusters are reflective of their gathering concerns exercise. They also noted that the questionnaire was not representative in terms of rural and urban citizens, it was urban centric which might have left out the concerns of rural based citizens. Upon probing, they also noted that the survey was not intentional to include citizen with disabilities. We then asked them to maybe share again the form with those in the rural areas and maybe those citizens with a disability and try to figure if their concerns are different from what we got. Unfortunately, no one managed to respond to the survey for this second round.

Lessons Learnt

  • It is always important to include participants in every stage, so they see if their views were all captured, this ensures that we are all contributing towards addressing public problems.
  • The next round of lab, gathering concerns survey should be representative of all different groups in the country.
  • We should have a safeguarding policy when engaging communities. This will be a written document signed with SIVIO that indicates and guarantees the safety of those participating in the research. The safeguarding policy ensures that those involved in the research (regardless of their background) has the right to be treated fairly with dignity and respect.

STEP 6: Check in meeting with the participants

We hosted a Zoom call with participants to hear where they were and if there are any issues that they might need clarity on. Only four participants managed to join the meeting, after a follow up most of them indicated that they had work commitments that could not permit them to attend this meeting.

Lessons Learnt

  • It is important to minimise number of calls in a voluntary process considering people will be having other commitments, WhatsApp is way easier because people can respond to a text at any given time unlike devoting time to an actual call.
  • We could maybe try to host the calls during weekends.
  • Participation levels decreases when the process is long, so there is need to find ways to shorten the check in processes.

STEP 7: Introducing stakeholder mapping stage

Now that we had captured the concerns that citizens were or are having, we then moved to the stage of trying to find who in the space can help in addressing the concerns citizens have. We introduced the stakeholder mapping stage through a survey, the same way we did gathering concerns, the only difference was that in this current stage, participants were filling the survey and identifying stakeholders. We also shared the voice note to explain the process. Participants showed a clear understanding of the stage, and it was easier to get responses.

Lesson Learnt

  • It is important to introduce the lab process in stages so that people do not feel overwhelmed, they will be able to participate quickly and smoothly.

STEP 8: Sharing a timeline of the history and scale of the problem

We developed a timeline of the history and scale of the problem dating back to 1980 and shared with participants the combined timeline. There was no comment or reactions to the timeline by participants.

Lessons Learnt

  • We could do better to involve participants in formulating content, if we need to guide them, we can maybe do a template and share with them. It helps them to feel they are part of the process.

STEP 9: Sharing of text messages to spark conversation on the group

There was too much silence on the group after we shared the timeline that we developed. We thought of sending messages on the group which talks about unemployment to try and spark conversation, it turned out people were just moving with the flow and began asking questions and that created a good discussion on the group. Various key points were noted and there were emerging questions from participants, for instance consensus on the definition of (un) employment.

Lessons Learnt

  • Reading extensively on the matter/ lab theme or topic is very crucial, because participants have diverse backgrounds and one wouldn’t want to be in a position where you are not sure about the questions being asked, you will not leave/proceed until you respond. It also helps in shaping the quality of discussion that goes on in the labs.

STEP 10: Sharing of social media trending discussions related to the lab, to spark conversations

We posted about the trending tweet from the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education when he talked about graduates being entrepreneurs and asked the participants their thoughts about the post. Participants began to share some interesting sentiments and talk about the subject extensively. We could note information gaps in the discussions and were able to provide some reading materials.

Lessons Learnt

  • Respecting everyone’s contribution and not disregarding them but guiding them back it to the discussion is important, it makes people comfortable to discuss and make more contributions which makes the lab live.

Overall Reflections

The lab is still live. We are keen to see what the next stages will look like. The learning has so far been steep for us and there are many corrective measures that we need to put in place. Some of the quick learnings are:

  1. Collective effort to address public problems through the labs aids in reframing the problem itself and crafting innovative solutions.
  2. Diversity and commitment help in simplifying what seems to be a complex problem.
  3. A lab offers collaborative structures that encourages the involvement of citizens and stakeholders in co-designing public solutions.