Insights on public agency in education

Our Theory of Change and significant component of our work focuses on improving real opportunities for citizens to engage, and promoting constructive responsiveness from public authorities. We are calling this public agency: spaces and processes in which citizens and authorities jointly shape decisions for the future of their communities and countries.

In 2016 we developed an experiment in public agency around a salient issue in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. This means primarily supporting, challenging and facilitating our district implementing partners, as they are embedded in the local environment and relationships; but also making use of data, insights, and information in new, locally-relevant ways. We are also deliberately – and to the best of our ability – applying the principles of adaptive learning and adaptive management to this pilot.

The entire process is one of high-stakes learning for the organization, and adaptive management principles (and tools) mandate embedding learning along the way to ensure thoughtful and regular fine-tuning of the design and implementation, as well as higher-level learning and reflection on core hypotheses related to accountability relationships between citizens and government. You can read more about our trajectory so far in this document.

Our learning plans include internal monitoring and a lot of feedback at the various levels of implementation, as well as an external pre- and post- assessment focusing very much at the community and school level, conducted by an independent party.

In this brief, we present the summary of the independent baseline research conducted by independent teams in each of the 3 countries. In each country a detailed baseline report was produced; they are available upon request from

Some of the core insights include:

  1. There is great defensiveness from within the education system to discuss teacher absenteeism as an issue. Across the board, teachers as well as Head Teachers (and often also District-level officials) insist that absenteeism is not a problem. In many cases, pupil absenteeism is brought up as a contrast and a “much bigger” problem. The position is that teachers are either present, or absent with a valid reason (there are interesting nuances across the countries in what people consider to be valid reasons). It turns out that the defensiveness has a real basis: teachers and head teachers often do work in very difficult conditions and environments. Often their basic needs are not met – and we mean basic: food, housing, water, regular salaries. In contrast, other stakeholders pointed out that in comparison to other people (even other civil servants), teachers have it better: at the very least they have a civil service job, and the hardships endured by others in the community are often perceived to be greater. Moreover, as we know, the reassurances that absenteeism isn’t a problem contradict what data shows: Service Delivery Indicators, and also our own Uwezo data clearly show high levels of teacher absenteeism.
  2. Across the board, there is a sense that the education system itself has failed its teachers, and teachers are overall demotivated. Overall there is little appetite for accountability, particularly given the hardships (real and perceived) as discussed above. In this context, a very clear message was that simply more monitoring (or other kinds of punitive approaches) will do nothing to change the behavior of a demotivated teacher.
  3. Even though the system is seen to be failing its teachers, almost paradoxically the various actors cooperate to keep the status quo going – the system may be failing, but it’s still better than having no system at all (and presumably no job). Relationships within the system seem to rest on a web of complicity, not a sense of responsibility or accountability. So teachers cover for each other, head teachers cover for their teachers, all produce data to show that there is no real problem. Since everyone cooperates this way, there is little appetite for exposing anyone or any component.
  4. In the eyes of many teachers and head teachers, parents and communities have reneged on their responsibilities to send children to school, to follow up, to pay fees when required, to contribute food, etc. Their absence is particularly felt in areas where pupil absenteeism is high. Conversations with parents as part of this fieldwork do confirm that for the most part, they are either checked out (do not feel is their responsibility or their place to act vis-à-vis the schools), or if they do want to act, really don’t know what to do (beyond the actions that are already in their parental sphere, such as giving children breakfast before school). We don’t yet know enough about what would truly motivate them to participate more, and the Public Agency pilot needs to explore this in greater detail.
  5. All respondents feel they have at least some power to act on this issue, but they seem to have neither the interest nor do they feel that it is directly their responsibility to act.
  • When asked who has the responsibility to ensure teachers (and pupils) are present and teaching, fingers are always pointed somewhere else. There were nearly zero statements of ownership in these discussions: no one spoke about what I can do; everyone spoke about what someone else should do, and it was always in very abstract terms.
  • When asked who has the power to act (to ensure teachers are present), people did speak about themselves and the power they have. Many of the statements here started with “I can…” (E.g. from a head teacher, I can check on whether my teachers are actually in the classrooms). Interestingly, no one felt they were powerless, although their power sphere may be small. Even students expressed this sentiment, with statements such as “I can make sure I am in school on time.”
  • When asked who has the interest or incentive to act, the finger pointing started again, and again no one claimed interest directly for themselves.

To find out more, read the full brief here.

Read more: Citizen Agency



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