Building an Actionable Case for Peer Learning

This blog post reports on work-in-progress within the DfG course! The post is written by group 2A dealing with the Ministry of Finance’s brief on Orchestrating public governance in employment services (TE2024) by focusing on the public servants’ needs in the new reform model. The group includes Kristen Barretto from the Collaborative and Industrial Design program, Frans Astala and Florencia Pochinki from the Creative Sustainability program and Falguni Purohit from the International Design Business Management program at Aalto University.

Written by: Kristen Barretto

Previously, we had located leveraging points and brainstormed potential interventions about how peer learning could be better facilitated between municipalities. In this blog we will take you along the final stretch of the design process where we synthesise our potential intervention ideas into a structured, tangible and actionable government proposal.

Breaking down peer learning into something simple and tangible

After hours of brainstorming potential ways of connecting municipality personnel together, we quickly realised the magnitude of the challenge we were attempting to solve. How could our team possibly know what peer learning format would be most successful? How could we ensure that our idea would make best use of the current infrastructure, ways of working and instruments that the government currently has in place? The answer was clear – we couldn’t, but we could offer a path for those who could.

Thus began the study of the broad and formidable concept of peer learning. We went back through past interviews and highlighted what interviewees desired and found troublesome about peer learning. We also looked through successful examples of peer learning, such as the means for cross-municipality collaboration Denmark has in place as a result of the recent employment service reform there. In addition, we also conducted general desktop research into peer learning strategies. One notable study that supported our thinking was, “A study of peer learning in the public sector,” by the Effective Institutions Platform (Andrews & Fanning, 2015). This entire exploration into peer learning is a great example of the type of knowledge designers may need to acquire. In almost every design project, we may find ourselves studying a wide variety of topics and concepts, sometimes fairly in depth. Moreover, this does not only occur at the start of the design process, but anywhere throughout it.

So what did we gain from our research? After much iteration and refinement, the result was a short, neat list – the seven elements of peer learning. To make the elements more usable, and because we couldn’t help wanting to create something that looked pretty, we designed the elements in the form of cards.

Figure 1: Visualisations of our seven peer learning element cards.

Finding our target stakeholder

While developing our tool, we knew we needed a plan for how to use it as well as a clear owner. The tool was designed to be used for the creation of a peer learning strategy or program, but what level of government would make most sense to use it? Who would lead the peer learning program and utilise our tool? There were seemingly many stakeholders that could take ownership in facilitating peer learning such as the ministries, Kuntaliitto, KEHA, individual municipalities or groups of municipalities. One important learning from this dilemma is that choosing the wrong stakeholder to make use of your proposals may make even great ideas unfeasible. Getting ideas through in government is already extremely challenging, even with the perfect stakeholders involved.

We had a particular dilemma between selecting municipality groups or the Ministry of Employment and Economic Affairs (TEM) to be the primary users of our tool. We saw the merits of decentralisation, and knew the municipalities would be able to create their own peer learning initiatives. However, we also knew that mandates from a ministry level would produce a more cohesive solution across municipalities. After an extensive comparison and a lengthy pros and cons list, we ended up with TEM. We reasoned that if municipality groups each designed their own peer learning programs, collaboration between different municipality groups would be chaos. Everyone would have their own ways of conducting peer learning, which could lead to regional silos and challenges learning best practices from other municipality groups. In addition to narrowing down our target stakeholder to TEM, we proposed a specific program design process that would align with the reform’s ideology of decentralisation. Although TEM would technically be the project owners, we suggest that they form a working group consisting of representatives from Kuntaliitto, Kela, Keha and the pilots. In this working group, TEM would be on equal standing to the other representatives, and act as more of a facilitator and connector. We reasoned that these actors would be able to bring their existing resources, knowledge and networks to the table that simply need to be utilised and connected in order to form a country-wide peer learning program.

The naming challenge

We were designing a tool and guidelines for how to use it, but in doing so inadvertently stumbled across a larger issue – the need for a peer learning strategy to be part of the TE2024 reform. The next obvious question was, “how then shall we frame our proposal?” Are we proposing a strategy, program, toolkit, policy or guide? Is it a policy proposal that includes a toolkit? Is it a strategy that is driven by an overarching peer learning policy, that contains a tool, which also offers policy implementation guidelines? This naming challenge confused us, and certainly also plagued the peers, spouses, tutors and family members that our team came in contact with. 

The challenge was to not limit our proposal to a mere design tool but at the same time keep it feasible and implementable. Naturally, we also didn’t want to be misleading or confusing with how we framed the solution. We ended up framing our solution as a proposal for TEM to form a working group and collaboratively design a peer learning program. In order to drive the program, we also suggested the need to integrate peer learning as part of the reform’s policy objectives. Our design tool, the elements of peer learning cards, would help the working group get started and ensure that the consequent program would be well rounded. A key learning here is that naming can have a considerable effect on how a proposal is perceived. When naming government interventions it is particularly important to carefully study what terminology and phrasing the government typically uses in order to create a more convincing proposal.

References

Andrews, M., & Fanning, N. (2015). Mapping peer learning initiatives in public sector reforms in development. CID Working Paper Series.

The DfG course runs for 14 weeks each spring – the 2022 course has now started and runs from 28 Feb to 23 May. It’s an advanced studio course in which students work in multidisciplinary teams to address project briefs commissioned by governmental ministries in Finland. The course proceeds through the spring as a series of teaching modules in which various research and design methods are applied to address the project briefs. Blog posts are written by student groups, in which they share news, experiences and insights from within the course activities and their project development. More information here about the DfG 2022 project briefs. 

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