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Adaptive programming: to adapt or to be irrelevant


What does it take to ensure security and justice programming is adaptive? Is adaptiveness actually desirable? These questions formed the basis of the series of lunch meetings and brainstorms on adaptive programming hosted by the Platform Secretariat over the past months. The concluding session, which took place 22 November, aimed to extract and synthesize the most important learnings from the series and translate these into concrete ideas for programming.

Click here for the summary reports of the first, second and third meetings on adaptive programming.

Enabling Factors

The discussion started by assessing what enables adaptive programming in practice, and focused on timeframes, organizational culture, indicators and knowledge. There needs to be ample time for programs to adapt to changes in their contexts; short-term programs thus do not lend themselves well to adaptiveness. On the other hand, long-term programs, it was noted, can suffer from stagnation if regular self-reflection intervals for program workers are not built in from the beginning.

This self-reflection must be an intrinsic quality in staff and organizations. While practitioners with decades of experience may seem a logical fit to lead programs, they may lack the ability to strategically assess where change must occur, thereby limiting potential for adaptiveness. True program ownership by having a stake in the issue and building in effective evaluation tools helps to prevent creeping biases from hurting learning processes.

What knowledge is necessary for adaptive programming? Practitioner experience, research, and monitoring and evaluation can all contribute to better adaptiveness. However, programming requires that each of these  types of knowledge identify on the one hand relevant indicators to ensure valuable input, and on the other hand valid entry points for change. They must plug into relevant program cycles and avoid wasting the often large volume of data that has been collected. Instilling in programming an expectation of knowledge sharing among practitioners, researchers, and policymakers, but also among organizations, will improve the value of knowledge.


The discussion also identified a number of constraints to adaptive programming. First, trust is an issue. There is a lack of trust between practitioners, researchers and policy makers, between implementers and beneficiaries, between organizations and staff. Staff members face undue burdens in their organizational procedures, limiting their ability to make choices on the fly that help programs adapt. It was also pointed out that program designers often lack sufficient trust in local beneficiaries’ ability to correctly identify their needs. More trust and less “template thinking” can boost flexibility, reactivity and relevance.

The input from policymakers identified the limitations on adaptiveness due to political constraints. Parliaments and ministries want differing degrees of control over objectives and targets, both at the baseline and in indicators through program execution. This may not be ideal from an adaptive programming perspective, but it is important to understand that this is the political reality in which programs operate.

Finally, can adaptive programs be scaled up? Large scale programs that are able to adapt quickly are rare. The discussion highlighted the freight ship analogy. While small programs are agile like speedboats, large-scale programs are more like freight ships: it is possible to change their course, but only incrementally – especially with help from “adaptive speedboats”!