During the project identification and design may organisations fall in the trap of the conventional research as it is thought that the researcher is the expert and knows more through the extensive experience that he/she has. Mostly, this method of research will result to the failure of the project to achieve its purpose and Goal as the thoughts of the users, beneficiaries and targeted communities were eliminated from the beginning to know their needs and how to respond to. The participatory learning action-PLA research method is a set of actions that are done at the beginning of the project to investigate more about the core problem, assess the current situation and define the possible solutions and interventions that could help the targeted communities. All of those actions should be done jointly with the community members and other stakeholders. Thus, the first step for this process is to identify the stakeholders so that we can ensure close communication and coordination with them. The first tool that might be useful to identify the stakeholders is the Venn diagram. The Venn diagram is a visual tool that shows the most relevant stakeholder, their level of influence and power, and the connections between each stakeholder and the other. The Venn diagram does not give us detailed information about each stakeholder thus, another tool is needed. This tool is called the stakeholder analysis matrix. The matrix helps with elaborating more about each stakeholder by giving more details about each one of them, classify them into categories to communicate later on easily, gives more details about their interest with the capacities that they have and how we can keep them interacted.
After knowing more about the stakeholders that need to participate in the project identification and design, we need to start collecting the data that will describe the context to identify the core problem and have suggestions for resolving it. The data can be collected easily through reading secondary sources that do not cost the organisation so many efforts, time or financially. But relying on the secondary data will not give in-depth details that are required to know the causes of the core problem and the impacts of that problem. Therefore, primary data is requested. The primary data collection is the first interaction between the organisation and the communities. It is divided into qualitative and quantitative primary sources . the qualitative sources that are gathered through interviews focus group discussions, brainstorming workshops and other methods that use the open questions to look at the source of the problem and the root of the causes. Usually, the stakeholders that were identified as the most powerful, influence or affective through the Venn diagram and the stakeholder analysis matrix are the ones that reached to participate in the qualitative data collection. But organisations need to ensure that the PLA is inclusive and open the opportunity for the various community members to share their thoughts equally including the most vulnerable such as women, children, people with disabilities, poor and others and it is the responsibility of the organisation to figure the best methods to hear their thoughts for each of those vulnerable groups.
In the other hand the quantitative data collection is gathered in a more systematic way such as surveys, questionnaires, tests and other more closed types of questions to identify the scale of the problem. Using a combination of the three methods is highly recommended to ensure comprehensive with integration in understanding the needs.
But the main challenge that any organisation can face with the participatory approach is the subjectivity of the data collected, and the variety of the opinions heard. Consequently, triangulation of the data collected is mandatory to ensure the neutrality of the organisation in the identification and design. One of the techniques used in the development sector for the triangulation of data is the process that was developed by the American sociologist “Jonathan Bradshaw” which is called Bradshaw’s categories of social needs. Through this technique, organisations can triangulate the data collected into four methods: the felt needs, expressed needs, normative needs, and comparative needs. The felt needs are the one that allows community representatives to share their feelings about the needs, but it is relying on the knowledge and awareness of the participants. While the expressed needs are the observation that the experts can quickly figure while walking through the targeted locations. The normative needs are done through the comparison between the statistics and the relevant standards by a set of professionals. While the comparative needs are the comparison between the targeted location with other locations with similar contexts. With Bradshaw’s process, organisations can reduce the risk of the subjectivity that can be resulted from the participatory approach.
Then finally, with the participatory approach for identification and design, the organisation can use its experience with developing several alternatives and solutions that can respond to the core problem and share them with the stakeholders. The key stakeholders, together with the organisation, will agree on the best solution that can fit the purpose and how it can be applied to ensure usefulness.
Even though the PLA is harder than the conventional research approach, but it can be more successful as it increases the ownership sense on the project, allow democratic practices to be implemented, empower the communities, and increase accountability against organisation towards the users and beneficiaries. The organisation with the PLA has a more facilitating role than leading in the identification phase of the project management. As it keeps interacting with the stakeholders to gain their interest, learn from their experience, respect their traditions and norms and together design the best that can fit the Goal.