The F Framework

Today I wrote the following paragraph – wait, have some caffeine before you read it to prevent from falling into a deep sleep.

Activities for this project all fall under the standard indicators at the levels of element 1.3.5-8, and more specifically under 1.6.1-14, 2.4.2-5, and 2.4.2-8, of the F Framework Governing Justly and Democratically (GJD). The specific activities for the latter are denoted in our indicators table with an asterisk. This project’s two partner organizations can also be counted under 2.1.4-3 and 2.4.2-11. The project overall may be counted as a new initiative dedicated to resolving a driver of conflict under 1.6.1-12. Although difficult to measure accurately, the number of host national inhabitants reached under 1.6.1-13 may be estimated.

Welcome to grant proposal writing.

We almost missed this small point in the 26 pages of proposal submission instructions:

The Office of the Director of Foreign Assistance (F) requires all DRL grantees to report on standard indicators at the appropriate F Framework Governing Justly and Democratically (GJD) Element level. Therefore, applicants should review the F Framework GJD Indicators and include at least one of these indicators that is relevant to the proposal in the M&E plan.

This may sound like a lot of government gobbledygook. The kind of thing that causes business owners to say government regulations are “oppressive.”

Or maybe it’s a test to see if grant applicants are paying attention.  The ability to comply with the requirements of a federal grant requires a great deal of attention to details just like this one.

But the instructions also tell us something important about what is involved in allocating the millions of dollars given in State Department grants and contracts every year.

The State Department can’t simply hand out money and tell the recipients, “Now go and do some good in foreign countries, and let us know how it goes.”

Everything involving federal expenditures has a corresponding set of laws, rules, and regulations that govern the process.

The general purpose of this complex web is to do what we expect the government to do: Prevent corruption, spend our tax dollars wisely, and be accountable for how the money is spent.

However, because U.S. work overseas has involved many civil servants, administrations, and Congressional oversight, as well as contracts for billions of dollars, it has gotten a bit complex. There are 659 rows in the table of indicators, which I had to read through in order to write the paragraph above.

The complexity is understandable. However, the need to quantify results overlays a number-counting mentality onto all development work. Numbers are what overseers look for in summary reports.

So most federal agencies that offer grants are looking for quick-hit numbers, and the bigger the number, the better. For example, 2.4.2-8 of the F Framework indicators, under the heading of Media Freedom and Freedom of Information, is “Number of training days provided to journalists with USG Assistance, measured by person-days of training.”

The trouble is, those numbers are no indication at all of what actually happened – or whether it helped solve the underlying problems.

As a trainer, I’ve been asked to do one-day workshops for 25 people on topics as vast as investigative reporting. Reporters seldom gain much in skills, and can’t retain them, when that’s the setup.

Moreover, organizations will round up 25 warm bodies who may or may not be actual journalists, just to hit their targets. Lots of people in poor countries will happily take a per diem to sit in a workshop – any workshop.

But the report numbers will look good. Investigative reporting – 25 person-days of training – check.

Most journalists – even those with advanced degrees – will tell you that they learned their craft at the knee of a good editor. Journalism – like all skills – is not learned in lectures, it’s learned by doing. And the skills are improved through hands-on experience under the guidance of experienced professionals. So that’s the model my company, NearMedia, uses.

We run learning sessions like newsrooms, where editors work with reporters on stories. We match international journalists to reporters for individual mentoring. We require reporters to produce content for publication. And we create outlets like News Lens Pakistan for them to own locally and disseminate the content.

In every grant proposal, I strain to politely get the message across about what works, while still meeting the funder’s needs to hit their number targets. What I’d really like to write is this:

Workshops in a vacuum – with no practical application, no follow-up, and no systemic support for the new skills – are an enormous waste of money.

Yet that is often what gets funded – because it fits the F Framework.

Today’s penny is a 2005. That’s the year I wrote my first winning proposal for a U.S. government grant.

2005 May 31