Chemonics' Center for Politically Informed Programming offers five tips for overcoming the limitations of remote fieldwork to get the most out of applied political economy analyses.

Applied political economy analysis (APEA) is a qualitative field research methodology that supports more effective, politically feasible, and actionable development strategies and relies heavily on field data collected in person at multiple sites in the project country or region. Globally, COVID-19 ushered in rapid and unanticipated travel, health, and safety constraints that make primary data collection challenging. With guidance and facilitation from Chemonics’ Center for Politically Informed Programming, project teams are using APEA to determine the political, economic, and social reasons why institutional and individual actors are behaving as they are and tailoring interventions based on this learning. Wildcat Research & Advisory Services (WCRAS), LLC is teaming with Chemonics to learn how Chemonics-led projects are adapting their APEA approach to overcome the limitations of remote fieldwork due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pivoting toward carrying out APEAs remotely during the pandemic creates management, collaboration, and product delivery challenges due to travel limitations, new health and safety considerations, and greater fluidity and uncertainty. Chemonics is pioneering techniques to overcome these challenges working with teams in Ukraine, Peru, and Guatemala. We share a few of these below:

1.  Allow more time for the preparation phase.

The Ukraine Democratic Governance East Activity (DG East) team reports in an online questionnaire that while “finalizing the APEA methodology ahead of time to minimize the back and forth during the active stages of research,” is critical, they also learned that they needed more time than anticipated to effectively coordinate data collection across multiple teams. The project recommends “keep[ing] open channels of communication among the teams and actively promot[ing] teamwork during the research … all team members need to be on the same page with regard to objectives, tasks, and anticipated results.” In Peru, the Transparency Public Investment (TPI) Activity team had to pause, reflect, and adapt their research protocol when COVID-19 prevented in-person interviews and halted travel. Meanwhile, USAID’s Guatemala Biodiversity Project restructured research questions carefully to account for the difference between in-person interviews and those conducted through video or telephone calls, since respondents show ‘interview fatigue’ sooner. One solution to avoid losing valuable data is to limit and focus questions on obtaining the very specific information that the team needs to proceed.

2. Build in greater flexibility and additional time for field work.

Pivoting to digital platforms for APEA discussions required teams to review research scope and instruments. With these new restraints, conducting analysis remotely may take considerably longer than an in-person APEA. The Guatemala Biodiversity Project team observed that “the COVID-19 pandemic also makes very evident the limitations of remote communication and the inequalities in the use of technology by different stakeholders.” Access to the reliable bandwidth needed for digital communication platforms, such as Google or Zoom, was not possible in many rural areas. To reach these vital populations, the project’s solution was to work through established trust networks to enable efficient data collection in a compressed time frame. The project team notes that “the interview process can be facilitated by identifying ‘an entry contact point’ that is known to the players locally to generate greater trust.” While it’s always critical to have a trusted local partner with the necessary network and relationships to connect the researcher with relevant stakeholders, it has become especially important given that the researcher will have very limited or no face time with the stakeholders themselves due to travel restrictions.

3. Limit the scope to essential question(s) and sites.

For successful remote management, it is critical to have clear and frank discourse with your donor, consultants, partners, and team to set clear research parameters. Setting these expectations and parameters ensures the continuity of the APEA objective and the quality of the data capture. By limiting the scope of research to a very nuanced issue facing the project at that specific moment in time, the findings will be richer, more practical, and actionable. For example, with Peru TPI, COVID-19 makes the team’s typical ambitious field data collection across five distinct and representative geographies unrealistic. Instead, the project suggests only selecting two to three of the most important sites. The TPI team stated, “… we purposefully identified two sectors that were impacted by COVID-19, the health and education sectors. The questions that we developed enabled us to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the impact COVID-19 had in the regions. We obtained information of stakeholders influencing the COVID-19 public agenda, their agendas, and their difficulties.”

4. Prioritize most critical stakeholders.

With the limitations of conducting APEA during the pandemic, teams should plan for fewer interviewees and will have to rely even more on data that is triangulated with key secondary sources. Practitioners can expand their scope by using public opinion surveys, publicly available indices, and national data when necessary. It is more valuable to prioritize a highly curated list of interviewees — those that the research team is reasonably confident can deliver the most useful insights — than 100 interviews with officials unwilling to provide candid answers. The DG East team discovered this challenge firsthand. They note that “… the selection of the respondents could have been more thorough in terms of vetting … several respondents did not have the information or were unwilling to share freely.” The team learned that given the limited time and resources, they should be more selective in their interviewee identification.

5. Ensure a team with the right skill set and tools.

Conducting an APEA remotely requires a team with exceptional communication skills to handle sensitive questions and to elicit helpful responses remotely. They will also need sufficient bandwidth to use a data capture tool such as EVIO or Google Analytics — as well as tools spanning content analysis, video conferencing, and file sharing. The Guatemala team learned that offering multiple communication platforms from high-bandwidth video options, such as Zoom, to easily accessible apps like WhatsApp kept research on track despite travel restrictions. Creating a virtual management plan with frequent check-ins throughout the process is vital so team leaders can troubleshoot to determine trade-offs, ensure quality control over the longer time period, and pivot as needed with any contextual shifts related to COVID-19 or otherwise. With project teams and WCRAS, LLC, Chemonics’ Center for Politically Informed Programming is creating a practical working model for conducting remote APEAs, ensuring information is collected in a safe and inclusive manner that has maximum impact on guiding project implementation. Despite the challenges, conducting APEA during the pandemic offers the opportunity for adaptive and creative approaches that lead to in-depth discussions about a project’s underlying assumptions and key stakeholders’ incentives. In turn, this deeper knowledge and understanding helps project teams to strengthen their shared purpose, as the process actively engages each team member in thinking and working politically.

For more information about Chemonics’ work in this technical area, please contact the Center for Politically Informed Programming at TWPTeam@chemonics.com.

Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.