CLA in Activity Design and Implementation

On this page:   What is it?   |   How do I get started?   |   Important Tips

What is it?

The development results of an activity will be enhanced when programming is coordinated, grounded in evidence, and adjusted as necessary to optimize effectiveness throughout implementation.  By integrating collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) throughout the activity design and procurement process, in the writing of the solicitation, and in the way the activity is managed, you help to ensure that implementing partners (IPs) have the capacity and the flexibility to reap the full benefits of these approaches.

In both acquisition and assistance, IPs and USAID have many opportunities to work together to incorporate strong CLA practices that will achieve better outcomes. During the design process, USAID staff should align the activity with the existing project and/or strategy and ensure complementarity with other activities under that process. At the same time, they can design the procurement, write the solicitation, and manage the activity in a way that will enable the IP to adapt in response to new evidence or changing circumstances. Working in close cooperation to set expectations and identify critical resources (time, funding and skill sets) at the outset, USAID and IPs can set an activity up for success in achieving its objectives.

How do I get started?

The following are three complementary and mutually reinforcing entry points to incorporating CLA practices and approaches into activity design and implementation. These three topics are discussed in more detail in the resources linked from each; a compilation of all of them is also available here.  It is important to note that you can also incorporate CLA into existing activities, by managing them adaptively and facilitating CLA during implementation.

Incorporating CLA in the procurement process:  Ensure the design team benefits from the breadth and depth of the information during the activity design process and the expertise resident in the Mission by including people with relevant technical and contextual knowledge, relationships with other development actors, and so on. Involve your Office of Acquisition and Assistance (OAA) early in the design process in order to identify an appropriate adaptable mechanism, methods for appropriate resource allocation, and ways to tailor the procurement process to support learning and adaptive management. You can also engage various partners early in the process to expand the collaborative, learning-oriented, and adaptive focus of your activity, and possibly pursue co-creation. Consider also how learning and adapting can be built into the work plan to address key learning agenda priorities.

Incorporating CLA in solicitations:  Include CLA concepts, as appropriate, throughout the solicitation – not just in a separate section. This includes incorporating CLA opportunities not only in the technical section and scope, but also specifying:

  • Some possible opportunities and enabling conditions of the activity start-up phase

  • How the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system is designed for learning

  • How the particular activity relates to others within the project and what resources are required for collaboration and learning to take place.

  • Describing the skills of the people who staff the mechanism

  • Guidance around collaboration, work planning, and learning-oriented reporting

  • Ensuring that the solicitation’s evaluation criteria reflect CLA

In addition, focusing on the outcomes you want rather than prescribing specific interventions creates more room for learning and adapting during implementation.

Incorporating CLA in activity management:  As you manage your activity, you have a chance to model strategic collaboration, continuous learning, and adaptive management and to encourage and incentivize your IP to engage in these processes. By laying the foundation for an open, trusting, and learning-oriented relationship with your IP, and facilitating CLA throughout the life of the activity, you can help to ensure the best possible development outcomes.

Important Tips

  • Build on CLA approaches already emphasized at the strategy and project levels. The degree to which you incorporate CLA into an activity design depends upon the particular priorities, capacities, resources and needs within the Mission, the nature of the country program, and the operational environment. Most often, these are captured in a Mission’s Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) and Performance Management Plan (PMP), including the CLA Plan. During project design, the Mission identifies:

    • the nature and degree of uncertainty related to potential shifts in the context;

    • a clear purpose, theory of change, and the degree of certainty surrounding that theory of change;

    • contributing analyses and the evidence base supporting particular design elements;

    • key monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) approaches that contribute to project success; and the source and nature of stakeholder engagement. These are critical factors to consider, as they will inform both the type and the depth of adaptive approaches that may best suit a particular activity.

  • Use the project’s logic model as a guide to depict your theory of change during activity design. In cases where we don’t have the answers for how results will be achieved, ask partners to tell us “how” and use the logic model during start-up and implementation. Logic models can facilitate CLA by providing an easy-to-use and modifiable visual aid to describe, discuss, and test the theory of change among different stakeholders.  For more, see the How-to Note on Developing a Project Logic Model (and its Associated Theory of Change).

  • Tailor the type and intensity of CLA approaches to fit the activity and its objectives. For any given activity, building in adaptive management through CLA practices, skills, and processes can support enhanced development results. Yet for any particular activity, the type of CLA practices and the degree of intensity that they need may vary. For example, activities operating in contexts with higher complexity might need more frequent context monitoring, and more flexibility for course corrections.  Activities that fully embrace a locally-led development approach would require more intense investment in community or other stakeholder engagement strategies.

  • Use M&E to learn, as well as to meet reporting requirements. In both project and activity design, the MEL section should be written with an integrated focus on reporting and learning, such that the MEL system captures and reports knowledge on how the activity is progressing, and feeds that learning into an adaptive management approach. This learning can benefit not just the individual activity, but also the broader project and Mission strategy. The MEL section can also draw from evidence outside the typical M&E realm, and incorporate elements of stakeholder engagement and organizational development, for example.

  • CLA practices can be essential to supporting local actors and fostering locally led development for increased self-reliance. CLA emphasizes engaging a wide range of development actors as peers, learning with and from each other, testing and iterating development interventions, sharing learning widely, and adapting to local contexts and other considerations. Thus, CLA is especially useful for transforming USAID’s development efforts toward a more catalytic, facilitative role that fosters local ownership, self-reliance, and sustainability.