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Measuring local leadership with 144 natural experiments

This post was originally featured on Developmental Leadership Program website here.

By: Tum Nhim, Panhaka Nou, Sodany Saing

Civic Champions winner Penh Moy. Photo credit: WaterSHED
Image: Civic Champions winner Penh Moy. Photo credit: WaterSHED


These are not easy times for local leaders, but effective local leadership can catalyse development. In Cambodia, local leaders committed to becoming ‘Civic Champions’ are playing a vital role in improving local sanitation uptake. During a unique, year-long leadership development program, they are supported by their superiors in the national and subnational government to develop skills to facilitate local pathways to progress. Exactly how they do that, though, is up to them. In new research, WaterSHED is closely following their individual leadership journeys – in effect, 144 natural experiments in how local leadership works.

The Civic Champions programme was inspired by WaterSHED’s experience. While working at scale to build a rural sanitation market, they saw that even in communities with similar socio-economic conditions, toilet sales and uptake greatly varied. In one area, the difference was a commune councilor, who displayed resilient and responsive leadership qualities. WaterSHED hypothesized that these qualities could be fostered to accelerate sanitation coverage.

This realization led to the 2015 piloting of the Civic Champions leadership programme. The pilot resulted in an extraordinary 400% increase in toilet sales. Since then, it has been scaled up through several design iterations. In each iteration, the team leading Civic directly engages subnational government staff: as facilitators, advisors, and advocates – facilitating institutional buy-in at multiple levels.

Research comparing the results of sanitation update in Civic and non-Civic areas has strongly suggested that Civic works. But why? In 2020-21, WaterSHED will dig deeper into this question. This new research, in partnership with DLP, is timely in the context of WaterSHED handing over the Civic Champions program to the Cambodian Royal Government for future replication, scale, and application of the leadership development methodology to other sectors

How are Civic Champions different?

Several unusual aspects of the program differ from the conventional wisdom of capacity building training. Civic does not pay the usual training workshop per diem: instead, commune councilors sign up and pay a participation fee to join the training. The program does not tell commune councilors explicitly what to do in their job or how to do it.

The new research will explore more closely how these design elements contribute to success. For the first time, WaterSHED researchers will catalogue locally developed leadership strategies and compare commune councilors who are Civic Champions with those who have not participated in the program. Participating commune councilors are not told how to achieve their targets, so each individual pathway is a unique leadership experiment – or 144 natural experiments in how leadership works.

The research questions are:

  1. How do participants of the Civic Champions program leverage local cultures, values, and ideas in their developmental leadership strategies for sanitation promotion to maximise results in the form of latrine uptake?
  2. How do participants of the Civic Champions program differ from other commune councilors in terms of resources, capacities, and self-efficacy? To what extent a) can these differences be attributed to the program? b) do these outcomes vary by gender?
  3. How do participants of the Civic Champions program, as positive outliers, differ from other commune councilors in terms of their leadership journeys and motivations to pursue developmental change? To what extent do leadership journeys and motivations vary by gender?

Initial findings demonstrate that commune councilors employ different leadership strategies with different target groups to increase sanitation coverage. Most commune councilors listed perseverance as a key leadership trait when working with various target groups, and many shared that, after participation they more keenly understood why communication is a necessary component of leadership.

What a Civic Champion Looks Like

Penh Moy’s story demonstrates what motivates some Civic Champions, as well as some of the unique challenges women face as subnational elected officials. Of the 900 commune councilors from over 400 participating communes in the 2019 program, nearly 40% were women, despite approximately 20% female representation in local government.

At the end of each Civic iteration, participants present the outcomes of their efforts and vote on a winner. Penh Moy won the Civic Champions competition, despite her statistical disadvantage. Her win illustrated that subnational support and leadership development can help lower barriers for women to be successful government officials.

In her acceptance speech, Penh Moy shared:

“I did not join this project to receive any medal or trophy, but rather I treated this program as part of my responsibility as a commune councilor. In the competition, I focused on leadership and teamwork. My team doesn’t care about whether it’s raining or not, we always make sure we visit people at the village level.

Education is also important. We don’t pressure villagers to make them buy a latrine or make a loan. We try to help them understand the benefits of having a latrine.”

Instead of taking the cash prize, Phenh Moy donated her prize to her commune to “accelerate public service work.”

Replicating the program: WaterAid in Kg. Chhnang

Recognizing the role of local leadership in building sustainable sanitation coverage, WaterAid Cambodia partnered with WaterSHED to replicate the Civic Champions program in Kampong Chhnang province. Through implementation, WaterAid Cambodia learned that the project tapped into the internal motivation of leaders to improve their leadership abilities including strategic thinking, planning, and interpersonal communications. Unlike many other leadership projects, Civic Champions gained genuine buy-in from local leaders.

After successful completion of multiple iterations of the Civic Champions program, the subnational government in Kampong Chhnang is working to allocate resources and train trainers to replicate Civic-style leadership training across the province.

New spaces for learning

The success of market-based sanitation in Cambodia, and the critical role of Civic Champions, has received quite a bit of attention from WASH programs around the world. The DLP-WaterSHED research partnership will help shed further light on how investment in local leadership development as a contextually appropriate, sustainable method can improve not only local WASH systems, but strengthen local governance and community resilience.

To learn more about the Civic Champions program: