By Renee HoJanuary 21, 2016

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Collecting good feedback and closing the feedback loop takes time and dedication. Any old feedback system won’t do.

All of us have experienced the black hole of a feedback box. And all of us know that this kind of tool is not that useful. It’s like writing into the abyss. You think, “no one is really going to read or respond to this” and anyway, you’re unidentifiable, a nobody.

In an Oxfam Research Report, Refugee Perceptions Study: Za’atari Camp and Host Communities in Jordan (June 2014), the author describes some of the problems with feedback mechanisms established between humanitarian aid service providers and Syrian refugees living in Jordan:

  • Free hotlines are an efficient means for refugees to clarify concerns and build confidence in providers. However, hotlines can generate unmanageable expectations, as refugees use them for every kind of request, complaint or concern…. Unfortunately, three organizations interviewed appear to be understaffing their hotline projects. For example, a representative from one organization confirmed one staff manages the hotline, but stopped answering because the amount of calls was overwhelming. As a consequence, many refugees…claimed they stopped using hotlines altogether.
  • Complaint boxes, such as those used by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), are an effective way to capture feedback if placed in strategic locations and regularly monitored. [Focus group discussion] respondents expressed reservations about their current use. Men from Baqaa said they never received feedback after depositing a note, or the box was so full that new notes could not be inserted inside.

The author of the report, Bryant Castro Serrato, conducted a clever meta-exercise:

Ask constituents (beneficiaries) for feedback on existing feedback mechanisms.

These are the recommendations that they gave:

  1. Sufficient Staffing – Refugees in Zarqa and Baqaa said feedback mechanisms need to be supported by adequate number of knowledgeable staff who are able to respond to multi-sectoral questions.
  2. Conduct Staff Visits to Medical Facilities – Respondents in Baqaa request UNHCR staff to actively approach refugees in hospitals to ask questions related to the quality of medical services and gauge levels of satisfaction directly from them.
  3. Ensure On-Site Decision-Makers – Men in Safoot asked that senior field staff be available at voucher distributions to address questions and take decisions if necessary.
  4. Provide Feedback when Assistance Changes/Ceases – Women in the Jordan Valley complained that providers should always give feedback when assistance is stopped or denied to beneficiaries; refugees need to understand why and how to proceed.
  5. Establish Thematic Hotlines – Males and females from Zarqa asked for hotlines for specific but recurrent themes, such as voucher exploitation or assistance for vulnerable persons, especially divorced or widowed women.
  6. Provide Feedback for CBOs – Refugees in Baqaa do not complain to local CBOs out of fear they will lose assistance, but they think transparency and quality standards could improve if international agencies established independent feedback mechanisms for CBOs.
  7. Build on Refugee Initiatives – Respondents suggested that providers should build on and improve refugee-led initiatives. For example, in Baqaa and Safoot refugees have organized community support groups that provide financial assistance and disseminate information – neither group is working with CBOs or humanitarian organizations. They believe providers should connect with the groups and establish information flows and a feedback mechanism to channel refugee questions and concerns directly back to partners.

What this report tells us is that while feedback is meant to help projects adapt and improve their work, it’s just as important to see the very implementation of a feedback mechanism as a similar project that also needs adaptation and improvement.

Abstracting away from the specific case of Syrian refugees in Jordan (but using the seven points raised above), we see that feedback mechanisms need the following in place:

  • Supply to meet demand (sufficient ability to respond to individual feedbacks). A lack of response will result in people no longer providing feedback.
  • Proactive procurement. This is as compared to only passive vessels like hotlines and comment boxes that might suggest the service providers don’t really care about feedback.
  • Physical presence and authority. A hotline or comment box dehumanizes and obscures the responsible party (and quite possibly the person who is also giving feedback), and creates this feeling of “writing into the abyss”.
  • A culture of responding regardless of an ability to do anything. Even if the service provider cannot actually change anything, some kind of response—ideally with an explanation—shows real engagement and concern. An explanation might provide the constituent with ideas on how else to proceed.
  • Segmented categories for different themes. More specific avenues will make it both easier for constituents to give feedback and for service providers to respond. The feedback mechanism will seem less like an unknown black hole.
  • Protection. Depending on the political situation in which constituents find themselves, the anonymity of feedback can be important. Constituents shouldn’t fear reprisal. International NGOs can collect the feedback and relay it anonymously to the local CBOs that are providing the services.
  • An awareness of other constituent-led projects. Some of the best feedback might exist by simply looking at other grassroots projects. The fact that these other projects have sprung up suggests that what external agents provide is not, in fact, sufficient or what constituents actually want.

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