Our Art of Iterative Programming

September 3, 2019 by Robert Bauchmüller

At the CEF, we promote capacity development of finance officials in South East Europe (SEE) through learning, responding to learning needs of our twelve constituent countries. We say we do this by serving as a knowledge hub. How do we draft our program?*

We draft every year a learning program that outlines our work for the next two years.** Our program is framed by the scope of the available resources and the directions and focus agreed with our Governing Board for the medium term. Our current strategic program perspective is the period 2018-2021, and we are getting ready to draft it for 2022-2026. At the moment of this blog post, we are concluding the drafting of our work program 2020-2021.

What determines our programming? Is it the content expertise we have in-house? Global best practice? Donors’ funding priorities? Wish-lists of our constituency? … It is a bit of all of these. We see our art in how we bring those different perspectives and inputs together in an iterative process, in which we engage a whole range of stakeholders (key officials from our constituency, leading experts in respective thematic areas, bilateral and international partners, as well as donors, etc.). How does it work?

When concluding an annual programming cycle, we review the process, and agree how to improve it further. This evaluation has strongly benefited from bottom-up sharing of experiences and ideas of the whole team. Our programming runs parallel to program implementation. To manage this parallel work, we seek to start as early as possible (i.e. already in the last quarter) and establish intermediary steps and deadlines to pace our efforts. And, we weigh off what resources we can invest in the programming effort and think about how to engage relevant stakeholders.

The first iteration is a team self-reflection

The Program Team starts another programming cycle by agreeing on how the process shall look like. We incorporate lessons learned from the past but are also eager to try out new ways and keep space for creativity. From year to year, we manage to start and complete a cycle more timely and smoothly. For the current cycle, for example, we have decided to leave more time for developing initial ideas within and across thematic areas, and incorporated several program team retreats to enhance selected programming steps, e.g. on how we combine information in one table, and how we draft short event descriptions. The following flow diagram sketches our programming schedule, and in particular highlights how different stakeholders’ inputs are gathered and incorporated.



Then we research, think, innovate and plan

Our key stakeholders are finance officials in our constituency and their respective institutions. Throughout the whole year, we are in regular consultation with them, e.g. when delivering our program activities, visiting them in their respective country, and exchanging information with CEF Coordinators – officials working on strategic human resource development at ministries of finance, tax administrations and central banks, nominated to support their institution’s cooperation with us.***

Program team members leading our work in respective thematic areas capture throughout the year information we gather on specific learning needs, and knowledge and experience identified that could be shared with peers in the region. They start the programming cycle with consolidating this information, and thinking about how they could review and complement this information through further desk research and/or consulting other stakeholders. At this stage, we also encourage each other to voice new ideas and sharpen them in concept notes.

Next iterations are outward looking

In reaching with our initial ideas out to others, we put our focus on brokering knowledge. To better capture and package relevant knoweldge, we constantly develop our understanding of respective thematic areas and the specific context of our constituency. However, our knowledge remains short of the expertise of officials working every day on those topics, or of those who focus on them as researchers or advisors. An important iterative step to review and sharpen the knowledge that we capture from our constituency is to verify it through key experts. For this, we consult, for example, CEF Associate Fellows, IMF Advisors based at the CEF, CEF expert group and committee members, and other experts whom we regularly engage in designing and delivering our program.

Validation before concluding the packaging

Before summer, once we have made an initial outline for the next two-year program, we consult our Governing Board to reconfirm that we are on the right track, gather complementary information, and get their buy-in and support for our further exchange with other stakeholders. In early summer, we then reach out bilaterally to key partners and main donors to see how our initial directions and highlights fit their respective expertise and funding priorities. And, in at the same time, we widen our consultation of experts, now we also consider potential lead experts for the design and delivery of (some of) the envisaged learning events, incorporating their initial preferences for event delivery dates.

While incorporating additional inputs and suggestions – the two-year program proposal is now nearly complete, we widen our stakeholder consultation yet again. In early September, we reach out to a number of partner institutions and the CEF Advisory Board to discuss concrete opportunities for cooperation in delivering the envisaged program draft for the next two years. At this occasion, we get final suggestions to sharpen the concept for the one or the other envisaged learning event, and we gather recommendations on how to enhance implementation of the envisaged two-year program and the next programming cycle.

Final touch and final approval

With the additional input and recommendations we get, we give our program proposal the last touch, and then send it to the Governing Board for its final approval. At the same time, we are already preparing to disseminate and communicate the new work program to our constituency. Each year, we try out innovative ways on how to reach potential candidates for participating in our initiatives. For example, last year, we presented our program proposal via video-conference to our CEF Coordinators, who help us disseminate the program information within their institution, and recruit participants.

*According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an ‘art’ is “a skill or special ability”; ‘iterative’ is “doing something again and again, usually to improve it”; and ‘programming’ is “the process of writing programs”.

**Only after 2018, we extended the scope from a one- to a two-year program proposal to enable more strategic discussions with our partners on opportunities to cooperate for sharing their knowledge at our learning initiatives. We now roll over every year our two-year program to the next two years.

***We also organize a joint meeting with CEF Coordinators on a bi-annual basis.

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