Working at the boundaries of practice – interesting yet challenging places

December 9, 2014 by Robert Bauchmüller

Our professional standing and identity as practitioner are based on our experience and accountability to the competences established by the communities of practitioners in the specific fields we work in. For example, a budget analyst at a ministry of finance will be highly respected by line ministries she works with, and will identify stronger with her role in checking their budget submissions, if she has got well-experienced in applying good practice and contributes to its further development through exchange with others.

At the CEF, we do not work with single communities of practice, but serve a complex landscape of different communities of practice. We work with budget analysts, macroeconomists, accountants, internal and external auditors, etc. at diverse beneficiary institutions, as well as different organizational units and levels. By consulting them regularly, we try to understand communities’ ‘internal’ logic of practice. At the same time, we try to understand the ‘state-of-the-art’ practice and to check it against theory by studying academic research, and consulting international experts and partner institutions. Despite our efforts to capture a comprehensive picture of practices, we do not want to claim having the ‘correct’ practice – reality is far too complex. But we want to facilitate and guide learning journeys of different communities of practitioners.

Boundaries between practices of different communities promise to be the most stimulating and innovative places for learning. We consider them as learning assets. For example, budget analysts and their counterparts at line ministries may differ quite much in their understanding and application of medium-term budget frameworks. Budget analysts tend to practice more conservative and forward-looking budget estimates of new policies, whereas line ministries tend to practice more optimistic estimates. Such different practices have motivated ministries of finance to encourage us to extend our learning activities also to line ministries, especially those that are very budget intensive. An additional opportunity for learning are the diverse perspectives of budget analysts and line ministries. Carefully designing learning activities that explore such different perspectives helps create new synergies and productive practices.

We have been investing much efforts to better understand line ministries’ role in countries’ annual processes of budget preparation and medium-term fiscal programming, and especially how costs of structural reforms are incorporated. The capacity development needs identified are addressed through a series of learning and networking activities within our EU-funded project on Strategic Planning and Budgeting. For example, we developed new courses on the Integration of Structural Reforms into Fiscal Programming, and Budget Submissions of Line Ministries. Also, we integrate line ministries’ needs in our budget preparation and execution course program, and involve budget officials of line ministries in joint activities with counterparts from ministries of finance. We are further intensifying our efforts in this regard, searching for the boundaries of practice to use them as learning asset. Participants of joint ministries of finance and line ministries activities rated overwhelmingly positively such activities, stating they improved mutual understanding of medium-term macro-fiscal frameworks, and clarified the roles of institutions involved in their preparation.

Yet, working at the boundaries of practice proofs also to be very challenging, as there is the risk of getting lost between the many practices. There are also historic commitments to practices that work, which may make people cautious about exploring these boundaries. But in our work, we do not deal with a consistent body of knowledge. State-of-the-art practices do not necessarily match with the practices of our participants, especially if convening different communities. Teaching state-of-the-art practice comes at the risk of putting too little attention to its functionality within the context of domestic policymaking in beneficiary countries.

We try to address the boundaries of different practices by having practitioners and their perspectives in the center of our learning approach. Through making our activities highly participatory, we try to encourage participants to open their practice to others, to explore the spaces at the boundary and encourage them to be prepared to move their own boundaries. And, preparing annotated event outlines in consultation with all relevant stakeholders helps us not to get lost. With such outlines we aim to clarify the objectives of each learning session to structure and facilitate participants interventions, and to allow us to broker ‘intentional’ boundary crossings.



Andrews, M.; Cangiano, M.; Cole, N.; de Renzio, P.; Krause, P.; and Seligmann, R. (2014). This is PFM. CID Working Paper No. 285.

Wenger-Trayner, E.; Fenton-O’Creevy, M.; Hutchinson, S.; Kubiak, C.; and Wenger-Trayner, B. eds. (2014). Learning in Landscapes of Practice – Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning. Abingdon: Routledge.


Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.