From Novice to Navigator: Navigating Government Partnerships in Education Reform

Published by edumentum on

By Bharti Singh

In July 2023, Involve launched its Peer Teaching Program in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Arriving as newcomers, we faced the formidable challenge of establishing our presence from the ground up. Over the course of six months, we transformed from being unknown to becoming advocates, building alliances and gaining support for our vision. Our journey, aptly named ‘From Zero to One,’ captures the many highs and lows we experienced while collaborating with government organizations.

Here, we share eight crucial lessons learned along the way, illustrated with real-life examples and practical advice. Our transition from zero to one marks just the beginning. Just as countless numbers follow one, many steps lie ahead as we continue to build relationships and create a lasting impact.

1. Don’t jump in with your solution

In Bhagalpur, we chose not to rush in with immediate solutions. Instead, we prioritized building trust by demonstrating our genuine commitment to making a difference. An unexpected opportunity to create the DIKSHA course allowed us to showcase our capabilities and set our journey in motion.

Arriving in Bhagalpur in July, we collaborated with DIET on their educational initiatives. During our discussions, it became clear that they were keen to develop the second phase of their course but faced technical challenges. Recognizing the significance of their project, we were thrilled to offer our expertise and support in designing and launching the course. Together, we successfully navigated the process, culminating in a live presentation on YouTube. This unplanned collaboration with DIET on an online course proved pivotal in establishing our credibility. It also led to Bhagalpur becoming the top performing district across the state. If you’re working with the government, it’s crucial to demonstrate that you can deliver results. Start by addressing their urgent needs, then expand your support to other areas. This approach not only builds trust but also paves the way for meaningful and lasting partnerships.

2. Invest time in knowing the place and people

In India, every few kilometers reveals a new language, culture, and cuisine. Understanding this diversity, we dedicated time to truly get to know Bhagalpur—its blocks, people, education system, and unique ways of functioning. Though it may seem like a significant effort, it’s truly worthwhile. We learned about the educational hierarchy, the annual schedule (including school vacations, assessments, teachers’ leave, and transfers), and teachers’ perspectives on various educational programs. These investments are essential in crafting solutions that are effective, realistic, and tailored to the community’s needs.

3. Demonstrate tangible results in context

Regardless of our past successes or the size of our organization, earning trust in a new area requires proving our impact locally. That’s what we did in Bhagalpur.

After arriving in July, we spent the first two months creating DIKSHA courses and understanding the district structure. Then, for the next month, we visited and learned about all 17 blocks in the district. Based on our learning, we developed a realistic and achievable plan, selecting 10 schools from 8 blocks and 25 from the Nagar Nigam block. This gave us a good number to showcase results. We demonstrated the positive effects of our peer learning program by starting with 105 schools, working with over 5,000 students through 1,200+ peer groups. This manageable scale allowed us to show visible results without overwhelming stakeholders. We conducted baseline and endline evaluations, finding that 105 students improved by one level in Hindi, and 233 students showed better results in math compared to their baseline assessments.

This solid foundation has set us up to replicate and expand our success. We aim to reach 1,778 schools (all the district’s primary schools) and impact even more students.

4. Adapting to Governmental dynamics: mastering Strategic Agility

Recognizing the importance of aligning with governmental initiatives, we prioritize integration within existing frameworks. After successfully completing the DIKSHA course in November, we embarked on our 105-model school project. However, our momentum faced a temporary pause during the festive period of Diwali and Chhath Puja in Bihar, leading to a necessary postponement. Swiftly adjusting our initial plan for a baseline study upon the government’s announcement of winter vacations in schools showcased our agility in synchronizing with official schedules. 

Similarly, we planned a year-end program to showcase our efforts and results to block and district stakeholders. However, our district program wasn’t approved due to the DEO’s busy schedule and venue issues. Instead, we redesigned it to occur at the block level, ensuring the program’s purpose was met. We invited district officials to these block-level events, where they witnessed firsthand the program’s impact on students. Our ability to adapt to government plans ensures we remain aligned and poised to achieve impactful outcomes.

5. Create anchors / advocates at all levels

Having supporters across all levels of government is essential. While maintaining a good rapport with higher-ups is valuable, the possibility of their departure underscores the need for broader connections. When we first arrived in Bhagalpur, we cultivated a strong bond with the District Education Officer (DEO), Sanjay Sir. However, when he was transferred in February, we faced a challenge. Fortunately, the District Program Officer (DPO) facilitated our introduction to the new DEO. Initially, establishing the same rapport proved challenging, yet our proven track record of impact across all stakeholders enabled us to continue our programs without impediments seamlessly. Building connections at every level ensures continuity and advocacy for our work, safeguarding progress even amidst personnel transitions.

6. Smaller success (not failure) is the key for larger success

Recognizing your achievements is essential for sustaining motivation, particularly during the initial stages when significant milestones may seem distant. Rather than fixating solely on major successes, embrace and celebrate the smaller victories along the journey. These incremental triumphs serve as essential building blocks, contributing to the larger picture of success. By acknowledging and cherishing each accomplishment, you fuel momentum and cultivate the inspiration needed to persist towards your goals. We take joy in every step, whether it’s securing time with the District Magistrate, presenting our program to the new District Education Officer, sharing an informal conversation with the District Program Officer, or making a positive impact on a single school, teacher, or child. Every effort counts, and we celebrate them all.

7. Empathize with government stakeholders

It is often thought that Government agencies have it easy, yet that is not factual. In reality, the environments within these agencies, particularly in education, are incredibly challenging and demanding. Institutions like DIET operate tirelessly, conducting continuous training sessions throughout the year, while district education offices extend their working hours to accommodate pressing tasks, often until 9 pm. Block officers navigate a demanding schedule, visiting multiple schools daily, reflecting the dedication required in their roles.

In light of these realities, our program planning was meticulously tailored to align with their schedules, demonstrating our understanding and support. Working hand in hand, we dedicated Sundays and even extended our working hours late into the night to ensure timely task completion. Consistently sharing progress reports with them, coupled with expressions of gratitude for their unwavering support, acknowledges their efforts and nurtures positive relationships. By acknowledging and appreciating the tireless efforts of government stakeholders, we foster a culture of collaboration and mutual respect. Such gestures of appreciation serve as catalysts for building enduring partnerships that are essential for the success of our shared initiatives.

8. Creating a culture of team synergy

Finding people who truly fit our criteria is difficult, but our strong culture keeps us together and helps us achieve what seems impossible. Keeping the team motivated in these remote areas is crucial.

We didn’t just work towards our program goals, we also focused on how we could grow and add value to each other. Over the last six months, we’ve invested heavily in team development which included reading multiple articles about working at scale, learnt from their successes and failures, talked to other organizations working at a large level and spent time building clarity on activities, outputs, outcomes, indicators and eventually the impact. This means that in the next session, we can focus more on the program and scale it without worrying about the team’s required skills.

Together, we’ve faced numerous challenges and setbacks. Our ability to laugh at bad times and learn from them truly fueled our progress. For example, during a DM visit that didn’t go as planned, we found humour in the situation, discussed what went wrong, and figured out how to improve for next time.

When stakeholders were harsh or critical, we leaned on each other for support and, in tough moments, shared laughter. After a particularly tough meeting with district officials, we gathered as a team, shared our frustrations, and lightened the mood with humour. The synergy within our team has been essential. It’s not just about working together but about growing together, supporting each other through challenges, and celebrating our successes. This synergy has enabled us to remain motivated, resilient, and focused on achieving our goals, no matter the obstacles we face.

Our transformation from novices to navigators in Bhagalpur embodies the essence of effective government partnerships in education reform. Through our experiences and the lessons learned, we offer guidance to aspiring changemakers who are poised to embark on similar ventures. As we persist in our pursuit of impact, may these insights serve as guiding lights, illuminating the path toward meaningful collaboration and enduring change.

#EveryStepTowardsEducation #MicroImprovementsMatter 

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