Second Cities of Integrity Working Paper reflects on the Zambian Qualitative Action Experiment

by Christian Alexander

If we want to better understand and confront the challenge of corruption in urban development in Africa, what are effective ways of doing so? This is the premise and topic addressed in the latest working paper by Cities of Integrity (COI) co-investigator Gilbert Siame (University of Zambia) and project researchers Laura Nkula-Wenz (University of Cape Town) and Dieter Zinnbauer (Copenhagen Business School), published this week. The project’s second working paper investigates the Qualitative Action Experiment (QAE) as a particularly promising methodological approach to studying corruption and integrity amongst urban planning professionals. Using the COI team’s own ongoing research as an illustrative example, the paper shows that the QAE approach occupies a middle ground between reflective observation and engaged activism. This makes it well suited for building integrity while studying corruption. Preliminary results from the team’s QAE in Zambia, while tentative, confirm that using a QAE-inspired approach may enable researchers to engage with planning professionals as both research participants and change agents.

As discussed in the Cities of Integrity project’s first working paper, authored by Zinnbauer (available here and discussed here), corruption in urban development has devastating and deep-seated impacts on cities in Africa and around the world. The first working paper makes the case that activating professional integrity within urban planning communities could serve as a novel and effective means of addressing corruption. Left largely unanswered in that paper, however, is how research and intervention from this perspective might be conducted.

Starting from the basis established in the first working paper, the second working paper thus highlights the complexity and difficulty of both studying and addressing corruption. It notes, for instance, that more conventional methodologies used in corruption research, such as randomized control trials, large-scale surveys, and field experiments, are useful but potentially limited in their ability to actually translate understanding into action. One means identified by the project team of addressing this shortcoming is by using a Qualitative Action Experiment as a versatile and context-sensitive methodology.

As explained in the second working paper, QAEs are an explorative, heuristic form of sociological research that emphasize co-discovery with research subjects regarding the structures, relationships, and connections constituting a particular issue. QAE research does not just seek to understand a subject, but also commits to finding practical ways to address challenges identified during the research. QAEs are particularly useful where a context-specific understanding of social perspectives is necessary, and where quantitative or other conventional forms of research cannot generate sufficient data or are unable to suggest avenues for action based on those data. In executing QAEs, researchers often employ a mix of research methods and techniques, including observation, evaluations, and case and sub-case analyses. For example, the working paper explores how QAEs can work particularly well when implemented in a mixed methods approach alongside a case study method.

In order to illustrate the potential of QAE research, the working paper reviews a two and a half day QAE training workshop involving 35 professional planners facilitated by the COI project team in Lusaka, Zambia in October 2019. As discussed in a previous post, the Lusaka QAE workshop was sponsored and facilitated in partnership with the Zambian Institute of Planners (ZIP), the state-mandated professional planning association. The relatively recent establishment of ZIP along with other reforms governing Zambia’s planning profession, driven by a strongly perceived need within government and society to address corruption in urban development, helped the project team to identify Zambia as an exemplary case for engaging with the professional planning community on issues of professional integrity.

Inspired by the same theories underlying QAE methodological practices, the Lusaka QAE workshop was grounded in three core principles: a strong emphasis on practical, pragmatic, and context-specific approaches to the lived experience of corruption; particular attention to collective, attitudinal, and behavioural drivers of corruption; and a commitment to participatory and inclusive dialog. The working paper discusses in greater detail various elements of the QAE workshop’s format and content, which included a range of interactive activities such as short presentations, group work, interactive scenarios, a role play, reflection sessions, and anonymous surveys. In particular, the workshop aimed to provide a platform for participants to share and explore context-specific information about corruption risks, and to actively challenge implicit assumptions about ethical agency. The workshop intentionally included a carefully calibrated mix of perspectives from both within and outside of the planning profession, and directly engaged with specific strategies for handling real-life situations in which corruption arises. The QAE also deployed other techniques designed to facilitate pro-social group norms, including awarding certificates of completion, encouraging participants to make specific personal commitments to support professional integrity in their respective work environments, and housing participants together for the full extent of the workshop to enable trust- and network-building.

Measurement of the QAE’s impact involved various forms of input that extended beyond mere attendance at the workshop. In order to help assess the QAE workshop, the project team administered  baseline and end-line surveys, as well as verbal and written course evaluations. In addition, the project team is currently undertaking a year-long post-QAE engagement with participants through quarterly survey, focus groups, and interviews, which will help the team to better understand the intervention’s impact.

While the project team’s overall findings regarding the QAE’s impact is subject to the completion of our ongoing follow up, the working paper notes some interesting preliminary findings from the first quarterly check-in with participants, undertaken in April 2020. For example, a high percentage of participants both responded to the survey and indicated that they remembered and had shared their experiences and integrity commitments. At the same time, survey results indicated that many participants still experience pressures to engage or acquiesce to potentially corrupt activities, reflecting the significance of the challenge and suggesting a need for the type of ongoing commitment to transforming research into action.


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