Hearing All the Voices

With our Government’s policy to ‘put the community at the centre of everything we do’, I have had plenty of opportunity to assist DELWP project managers design a participatory approach  to their work.  Based on the ‘diverge/converge’ model, the first part ‘hearing all the voices’ is critical to any sustainable resolution to a decision.

After the fire at Wye River I helped the local DELWP PM’s of five small projects identify their stakeholders and run ‘listening posts’ at the periphery of the official Town Hall style recovery meetings. These were sufficiently successful that the local staff were willing to analyse their stakeholders and ask for input to the ‘negotiables’ on a number of others.

Together with Semi-structured interviews and Kitchen Table Conversations, a really useful technique to outline the problem and start conversations has been the Open House technique. We have now run such events for the following projects, mainly around coastal issues:

  • Coastal change Narrawong
  • Coastal change Indented Head
  • Coastal change Point Lonsdale
  • Coastal change Apollo Bay
  • Belfast Coastal Management Plan
  • Winchelsea Common
  • DELWP depot relocation Forrest

    Coastal Change

    Prior to going to Malawi, I was involved in Coastal Hazard Mapping projects, which included the release of the document for Port Fairy. The driver for action in Port Fairy was the exposure of an old land fill site in the dunes, and this eventually resulted in an engagement process driven by community members. What I have learned over the last 18 months is that when it comes to climate change and the coast, each locality is absolutely unique and requires a different approach in each instance.



    The need for engagement was driven by issues regarding a submerging campsite and local concerns about the committee which managed the camp site. See youtube video at:


    As in all instances, posters developed were particular to the site and situation :

    (A small aside; we had to ask the committee member who sat at the event the whole time to move his car when we realised others were turning away when seeing it in the car park)

    Indented Head

    This was driven by City of Greater Geelong and through a series of small community meetings resulted in them inviting friends, neighbours etc. to a 1.5hr workshop that explored the ‘past present and future’ of this part of the coast.  The past was a focussed conversation around photos provided by community members, for the present I used my poster process, and the future was a Noisy Round Robin followed by an Action Planning Session. A bit of a highlight for the group was members of the Port Fairy Citizens Science group being there. I included a poster illustrating their work.


    Point Lonsdale

    This process was developed in response to some community members concerned about sand missing from a section of beach.

    The DELWP project managers engaged a consultant to do a desk top review of all the studies carried out on that piece of coast. At the completion of this work, we held an Open House to set the context of his report. Whilst the consultant was in attendance, we did not advertise it.

    We have now completed the feedback sheet based on a ‘theme and name’ process, which is rapidly becoming a model for providing the feedback to all these events. Of particular mention is that there is no numbers attached to any idea (This is not a decision making sessio). We are now preparing for some World Cafe events using themes derived from the ‘what we heard’ groups. My current thought is to offer as many 1 hr workshops as desired, but limit the numbers to 24 per workshop. Still open to other ideas on that one!  We’re also now offering horizontal surfaces for people to write on post-its. I’m still a bit cautious of that one. Maybe it should be both.

    Apollo Bay

    Storms in 2011 and 2016 had lead to specific and substantial spot erosion. Sand was replaced, but not without community dissent. In March this year money was allocated for a three year program to move sand. Because of the need to advertise and let a tender prior to winter there was little opportunity for ‘negotiables’, but still a need to inform the community that work would happen this year. Carried out in collaboration with the CoM, the Open House event was designed to be ‘inform’ for this year, but ‘consult’ on where to move sand from and too in subsequent years. Lots of ideas were expressed on how to retain the sand in the future.


    Winchelsea Common

    The Winchelsea Common had been closed by the EPA in 2013 due to the high levels of lead in the ground. The EPA required the local Council and DELWP for an engagement process to determine future use of the common to inform clean up notices. The ‘Open Shed’ was only an annex to the main engagement process which were ‘Reverse Guided Tours’ held throughout the day.

    Visitors to the Open Shed were invited to take part in facilitated site tours of The Common. The ‘reverse site tour’ was structured so that after a brief overview from agency representatives, the participants were provided the opportunity to comment at each of the four stops rather than listening to agency views.


  • Site 1.   Two large trees showing lead shot damage
  • Site 2 – Go-Kart Track
  • Site 3 – Vegetated area with significant grasslands
  • Site 4 – Open area with dirt mound/soil stockpile

At each site the community participants were asked:

  1.  What do you like about this spot?
  2. What are the opportunities?

Each tour took approx. 45 -60 minutes. Feedback was captured by the tour facilitators.

By listening, the process helped ameliorate the anger of a group that saw the common closure as an act of class warfare.

Subsequent workshops with a landscape designer has resulted in a future use plan that all are willing to support.

Forrest depot relocation

The DELWP Forrest Depot is being shut down, and a new facility being constructed in a village 10km away. Government policy is to allow community groups identify alternative uses prior to redundant facilities being sold on the open market. This Open House was designed to collect all the ideas for the reuse of this asset.




Belfast Coastal Management Plan

The beginnings of a complex project being carried out in collaboration with two local authorities and Parks Vic. This recently held Open House is just the start of an intensive six week period of listening to many diverse individuals and groups that have equally as many diverse opinions on how this substantial piece of coastline should be managed in the future.

Reflections and Learnings

Every instance is completely unique. There is a driver for change, and a whole number of people are either interested or will be effected by a decision. The response has to be tailored for the specific situation. Some things that have worked:

Work with the local group (CoM, residents action group, etc.) to decide on place and time. They will also be the ones that do the best word of mouth advertising.

Don’t rely on media advertising. Put time into word of mouth personal connections.

Always put some form of advertising out, to ensure it is not seen to be restricted to those in the know.

Keep the posters as factual as possible, minimising Govt. staff opinions and ideas. Always look for the opportunity to get local opinions, ideas and views as part of the sessions. Develop ‘Negotiables’ and ‘Not Negotiables’ to inform key questions and key messages. Beware of assumptions!

Be careful of specialists and experts. Don’t advertise that they will be there, and if essential, make sure they are not in a large space.

Make sure the advertising is for a ‘drop in’ event, open between xx & yy hours. Try to have more than one session.

Good to have an accompanying website. Just make sure it corresponds in content and time with the ‘Hearing all the Voices’ section of the process.

Create a plan for the event. Know which posters are going where, how many boards, where they will be placed in the space, tables will go etc.

Kids space is good

Finding photos and asking community members for photos of the locality over time is excellent. Many find that their memories are a bit off.

Having a flip chart at the exit, and very pro-actively gathering ‘last thoughts’ as people leave. This often gives the best insights.

Both the event itself, and the ‘What we have heard’ document allow participants to see the wide range of views on the topic.

Things that need more work. 

I don’t feel I’ve worked out the writing horizontally/vertically business. I think it is easier for people to read work posted vertically, but probably write horizontally. I think facilitators should write what others are saying vertically. So it needs a bit of both.

Sometimes PM’s finding the time for word of mouth engagement/advertising

Staff are getting better at listening and scribing. The 15min training helps. I think we could get better at using the internal facilitators group in Head Office.

My biggest concern at the moment is not getting the feedback, the ‘what we have heard’ message, back out in a timely manner. As a facilitator, it is considered best practice to produce a workshop report in 24hrs. I was initially expecting Project Managers to take a few weeks, but in almost all cases it has taken longer. I am a bit concerned about the possible impact… we will see.

I’m not too sure on how to plan and implement some form of participatory regional engagement evaluation and reflection process.

Getting the right balance between being ‘adviser’ and ‘doer’.

Reflection and Evaluation

Two weeks after leaving Malawi has allowed a bit of time to overcome the culture shock of returning to Geelong and space for reflection .

The good parts: There were many! The people, the climate, the natural environment, the culture of engagement, the good humour, the resilience and resourcefulness of the Malawian people. There were many more but these will do as a start…

The challenges: There were many! The erratic infrastructure, the pollution, the limitations of bonding capital, the indescribable effects of internalised and institutionalised colonialism, the dysfunctional Government system, the ‘drama triangle’ played out between the Malawians and donors.

The disappointments. The major disappointment was to find that the roles of those involved in contemporary international development programs are far more aligned to those I experienced as an apprentice in an engineering works than the job titles themselves would suggest.

Factory Terminology Development Terminology` Role
Client Donor Sets out the brief, provides the funds.
Design Engineer Proposal writer Designs the product to be implemented/constructed
Works Manager Project Manager Responsible for the day to day running of the project/order
Foreman M&E specialist Keeps track of day to day operations and performance
Craftsman Trainer Provider of specialist skills
Machine operator Field facilitator Output implementers
Labourer Driver General dogs body

The joys; Being involved with the Malawian people was wonderful. I got immense satisfaction and enjoyment from designing and facilitating more than 23 workshops over the period, especially with establishing and running the five inaugural sessions of the M&E Technical Working Group.

Some of the wonderful feedback I got from the M&E Technical Working Group members were:

It has been an honor to know and work with you Martin, you are so easy to talk to when one has issues. I must really appreciate the way we interacted during your stay here. Let me assure you that I will strive to utilize the skills you shared and thanks again for that useful book and the start-up materials, that was so wonderful, may the good Lord give back abundantly- Rodrick


Thank you for the time we spent together here in Malawi and for the skills you have shared with us I really appreciate for this – Bonface


I will miss your pragmatic approach to issues and rare facilitation skills. We were empowered. Hope to work with you again. – Ronald


The contribution you made to our TWG is so great that you have left a mark. – Marie


Goodbyes are always sad but we still celebrate the time you have worked with CU and inTWG…You are the best mentor and that has brought the best out of us. We look forward to using your good facilitation skills in our workshops.- Cecelia


It was great working with you, and the skills you imparted on me will surely have a significant impact on my professional development.- Tenthema

Evaluation It was a really rewarding 18 months, and I need to say a big ‘Thankyou’  to all those in the organisations of Concern Universal Malawi and Australian Volunteers International for providing such an opportunity. I learned all kinds of things, had great times, experienced some (not too dangerous) challenges with adequate support and above all made some great connections with some wonderful people. We may have even made a slight bit of difference…. What more can one want!

Action Learning in Action

Using the Lit Review process, participants explore Action & Reflective Learning

Using the Lit Review process, participants explore Action & Reflective Learning

The M&E technical working group continues to be my favourite Malawian project. Last week was TWG #4 where we further developed the idea of a centralised data base system and reviewed participants mini projects to improve data collection in their work. I was particularly pleased with this latter part of the workshop.

I started with a ‘Literature review’ on Action Learning and Reflective practice. This helped them better understand some completely new theory to all of them. After this backgrounding I ran a short sociometric exercise on how long they had been practicing M&E and from this created pairs with different levels of experience.

Some of the pairs with different skill levels helping each other in their presentation

Some of the pairs with different skill levels helping each other in their presentation

The next step was for each pair to help each other develop a 2min presentation on what they had developed in TWG #2, what they had done and to reflect on the process.


When asked to record what they had learned during the session, by far the majority referred to Action Learning in some way – some examples:

  • How the action research process works to improve M&E and the learning process
  • Learned from the actions taken by other M&E officers to achieve an improvement in data collection
  • At least that action research/learning, one needs to reflect and act upon the identification of gaps and what has worked and what has not worked
  • The application of action learning/research in day to day M&E activities and how it can help in reflection
  • The concept of action research and how to apply it in my day to day activities
  • What action research is and the importance of action reports
  • A reflection of the data collection process.
  • That I can use the action research approach to improve on data collection process of my project. It is good to get everyone involved in the process because it gets people talk the same language at the end of the day. – you plan together on what to collect and how – you implement – you reflect and then modify the tools or process where necessary.
Small steps or big goals? Not sure, probably too early to tell.

Small steps or big goals? Not sure, probably too early to tell.


Introductory exercise at Workshop 1. Where's home, favourite book, academic background.

Introductory exercise at Workshop 1. My name is.. My family….  I studied……. My favourite book…..

A great joy of the year has been to facilitate the Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Working Group (M&E TWG). The organisation implements approximately 17 projects, often with multiple donors and always with a variety of reporting requirements. Thus there are currently 14 staff members who are responsible to a greater or lesser degree for the Monitoring and Evaluation of these projects. Physically they are spread out across eight districts with a 6hr drive between the extremes. The rationale for the TWG is to develop a peer learning culture to improve the quality of M&E across the organisation. To allow for travel, these six weekly one day workshops start at lunch time on a Thursday and finish lunch time the next day. We have now held three since Christmas last year, with two more before we leave Malawi.


Is this a first? Workshop participants using their mobiles as a workshop exercise.

In the first workshop I took the opportunity to pick everyones brains about how to collect some data that the UK office wanted. A participant suggested that I could get it by looking at the various surveys carried out within the projects, a problem being that there is no central record of what surveys are carried out. At this point I took great delight in being able to break all the usual rules about mobile phones in a workshop. I handed out phone credit tokens to them all and offered a prize to the one who after phoning their friends could provide a list with the most number of surveys conducted during the previous financial year.

Ranking the quality of the various elements of an M&E system across the organisation

Ranking the quality of the various elements of an M&E system across the organisation


Each participants plan to improve data collection processes in their project

In the second workshop I ran a self assessment process around the quality of each of the M&E elements in their projects.  Everyone then developed a small mini project that would improve the data collection process in their project. A fascinating insight came when I asked each to describe their project, outlining the steps and how they were going to monitor progress. At this point I was asked what I meant by monitoring progress, did I mean indicators or something? That making some notes in a diary was ‘monitoring’ seemed to come as quite a surprise to them.


The following session they all gave a report back – learning set style – no suggestions, only questions. Next session I’ll ask for some evaluation.


Village Savings and Loans are something like the original conception of the Grameen Bank, but perhaps even simpler. A small number of people get together and agree to save a regular monthly amount each. In rural Malawian villages this might be as little as 30c/month. As soon as there is some money, it is lent out to the members, with interest of sometimes as much as 25%/month. With this sort of interest rate, the ‘bank’ quickly increases its capital base. After an agreed period, the total earnings are distributed amongst its members.

In 2014 Concern Universal Malawi supported the formation of 1008 VSL groups with a total of 21,779 members. The funds in circulation are currently MK212,650,138, which is approximately $28/member.

We provided the school exercise book which is used for keeping the record. Austin is the Day group keeper and Robert the Night group keeper.

We provided the school exercise book which is used for keeping the record. Austin is the Day group keeper and Robert the Night group keeper.

After distributing the donations received to assist the guards in recovery after the wild weather of January (as per previous blogs), some late contributions came in. Rather than distribute these funds as per the first round, we were keen to try and build something more with the money. We thus suggested that they establish a VSL group. In fact, they decided to establish two, One for the day guards, the other for the night guards. In this instance we got Tiaone – a CU staff member known as the VSL Queen – to come and explain the concept and help them establish the ‘ledger’.  From there each group elected a book keeper and immediately distributed the funds. In fact my understanding is that most VSL groups in the villages don’t actually hold any money at all, it is all constantly out on loan. Security at payout time though is becoming an issue, together with stand over tactics by local power holders.

All eyes on the money. A great kickstarter for some small business enterprise.

All eyes on the money. A great kickstarter for some small business enterprises.

Whilst not the record keeper, I have become a member of each group to have a legitimate way of monitoring how it is all going.