Institutional Knowledge

Any long-term engagement requires a certain level of institutional knowledge in order to be sustainable and ever forward-moving. This becomes especially poignant the longer and more complex the initiative. Given Project Sammaan’s scope and long-term focus, this level of understanding is simply not an option, but rather an absolute must if we are to be successful.

There are many ways in which the project is structured to ensure that the decisions made that define the project are documented as they happen, and this information is disseminated to project partners or in the very least made readily available. Communications efforts span from this blog to the monthly newsletter; from presentations and related updates to regular meetings and conference calls between project partners, including those at the government. Further redundancies are built into the manner in which project-related materials are stored, with multiple parties having access to any pertinent files for easy access and, more importantly, the assurance that nothing is lost along the way.

Despite all of this, the challenge of turnover within the teams is not easily overcome, and the necessary re-group to bring any new team members up to speed will absolutely lead to delays, it’s just a matter of mitigating how significant these setbacks are. There are several project briefs that the team relies on to introduce Project Sammaan, but condensing the complexities of an initiative seeking to re-imagine and improve community sanitation for India’s urban slums to a matter of a few pages or bullet points is not only impossible, it is a disservice to the effort.

While turnover within the non-government partners has been minimal, and the constant presence of senior team members has helped with the few new transitions we have had, the same cannot be said at the government level. Compounding this is the fact that the turnover at the government agencies has tended to be at the more senior levels; there have been six Commissioners at the CMC and three Commissioners at the BMC since the project kicked-off in January 2012. Given the busy schedules of senior officials, there has, in the case of Sammaan, been little opportunity for detailed project-level briefings from one official to his or her replacement.

While Government partners, particularly at the engineer level within the Municipal Corporations, do a good job of bringing new senior officials up to speed on pending initiatives, there are simply too many projects to go into too great of detail on all of them. It is therefore the project team’s responsibility to provide that detailed debrief. It is oftentimes these occurrences that can lead to prolonged delays as the past must be revisited, and in detail. Years’ worth of decisions are reviewed and scrutinized, with many of the same issues that were thought put to rest re-emerging, and requiring justification.

The latest iteration of this reality is the proposal by members of the H&UD Department to shift away from the current PSU’s proposed nomination as contractor in favor of another organization, and one with a reputation for mismanaging toilet facilities. Above and beyond the shock at hearing this sudden change-of-direction, considering that during the more than three months that the PSU’s nomination was under review not once was there even a hint of considering other organizations for the Sammaan contracts, this very organization had been initially suggested as contractor and struck down in March 2013, and again in May 2014 by other members of the H&UD Department that have since moved on to other postings. After a series of meetings, it was made clear to the team that there were a few issues around some pending work that caused concern regarding the proposed PSU and that, once addressed, the nomination could move forward.

The issues revolve around funding for a PMC fee and a few O&M details. Discussions around these have been taking place for several months now, but a new member working on the project would not have known this. Open, timely communication is the only way to overcome this drop in institutional knowledge, which means any and all new partners working on Sammaan, especially at the government, need to be brought into the fold as quickly as possible. Otherwise the retrograde motion of “two steps forward, one step back” will continue to affect the initiative, and further delay providing the Sammaan facilities to the community members counting on us to provide them.

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