Trust in experts and strong team work leads to significant outcomes in achieving EU goal of “working better together”

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One of the illustrator’s sketches from the training course, which depicts participants’ discussions on Joint Programming.

Reflections from experts and EU officials on experiences, deliverables, and learnings from a project to support closer collaboration to implement the 2030 Agenda tell a story of a successful working relationship that not even a pandemic could derail.

It’s no small irony that a project aimed at ensuring greater coherency and collaboration among the EU, its Member States and partner countries in development policy planning should itself be recognised for achieving success though strong teamwork and mutual trust.

“Transparency, trust, and professionalism were crucial elements prioritised during the project,” said Katarina Courtnadge-Kovacevic, Team Leader of ‘Support to Working Better Together for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda’. “These factors facilitated a strong team dynamic, which in the end led to successful project implementation. We all felt like part of the NIRAS family.”

A promising collaboration evident from the outset

The European Commission has a strong political commitment to ensure that the EU and its Member States work closely together and are coherent and complementary in their development policies on the global stage. With this ambition in mind, NIRAS was contracted in January 2019 to enhance implementation of the SDGs and effectiveness of EU aid. Working closely with the Commission’s Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DG DEVCO), EU Delegations and Member State Embassies, NIRAS provided technical assistance to support joint programming of development cooperation among EU partners.

Around the time of the kick-off meeting in February 2019, NIRAS arranged a global retreat in Belgrade, bringing together all its consultants from around the world.  Experts from the project were invited to join. “That is the kind of care and nurturing that NIRAS puts into staff. It doesn’t matter whether you are a temporary expert or consultant nor how long you have been working with NIRAS. You are immediately made to feel like part of the team. This is unique, nobody else does anything like that with short-term consultants. And it makes for a much better, fruitful collaboration and team approach,” Katarina remarked.

Social sporting event following the policy dialogue of the EU and its Member States, as Team Europe, with the government of LAO PDR.
Social sporting event following the policy dialogue of the EU and its Member States, as Team Europe, with the government of LAO PDR.

That mutual trust continued throughout the project and Katarina is convinced it provided an impetus to do better: “NIRAS trusts experts to deliver, and they place importance in transparency. When we prepared reports, their contributions were produced and delivered very quickly, and they always shared what had been submitted to the client. The team always knew where in the process we were. I have not experienced this in previous projects – which, again, I view as part of trust-building and transparent way in which NIRAS operate.”

This strong team dynamic made work much easier when COVID-19 complicated physical meetings and missions. According to Katarina, the feeling of trust among the team and in the experts became evident when home-based work and remote communication accelerated.

The pandemic upended plans for the contractor, client, and experts alike, and priorities had to be rearranged in a swift manner. Christos Marazopoulos, the DG DEVCO team leader on the project, appreciated the NIRAS team’s ability to adapt to the changing circumstances, adopt alternative approaches and respond in a timely manner to urgencies: “We were always met by NIRAS with a positive and constructive spirit in the work – it was crucial to have someone you felt you could always rely on in terms of quality and speed of delivery.”

Team dinner before the kick-off meeting in Brussels.
Team dinner before the kick-off meeting in Brussels.

Great progress despite COVID

With missions being replaced with remote meetings, less money was spent on travel, allowing more resources to be channelled into expert work days. Katarina and her team of 11 experts were tasked with ensuring the SDGs were mainstreamed across all elements of Joint Programming in EU developmental aid, namely, joint analysis, monitoring and results frameworks, as well as implementation. At the country level, flexible, tailored efforts encourage local ownership by aligning cooperation resources with partner countries’ development plans and strengthening the capacity and operational knowledge of EU Delegations and Member States embassies on Joint Programming and the SDGs while improving policy dialogue with partner countries.

"NIRAS was adaptive to changing circumstances, responded in a timely manner to urgencies, and always had a positive spirit in our various exchanges and in the work."

Christos Marazopoulos, EU DG DEVCO team leader on the project.

Christos pointed to the training course that NIRAS, together with the EU DG DEVCO’s ‘Methodological and Knowledge Sharing Support Programme (MKS), helped set up on how to implement Joint Programming as an example of the innovative approach followed. “NIRAS identified experts to run the training course and invited Member States in addition to EU Delegation staff. Member States usually do not participate in such courses, but their participation was valuable. Another uncommon element was the decision to invite an illustrator who drew sketches of what he heard on the course. These cartoons were digitalised and shared with our networks. The course produced interesting discussions and captured the essence of the training.”

Communication was a key component of the project’s output. A communications strategy and package was developed and later altered as to integrate a communicative concept called Team Europe, which was created following the pandemic to support partner countries’ sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Such visual identities and the use of infographics and other visualised data help to document and raise awareness about the positive impacts of Joint Programming, the importance of collaboration, and the EU and Member States’ support.

“Team Europe is political and all encompassing. It is an operationalisation of the work that fell on us as a DG DEVCO, and we relied upon NIRAS to help us build a visual identity for this new policy that came in abruptly and unexpectedly. It offered coherence in the communication approach regarding our support to fight COVID-19 globally and in partner countries,” Christos explained.

In highlighting some other valuable deliverables, Christos noted the project played a key role in bringing practitioners together to produce studies and discuss how best to embed the SDGs in Joint Programming.

An assignment under FWC SIEA 2018- Lot 3 (Human Rights, Democracy and Peace), NIRAS provided a Technical Assistance Facility to support DG DEVCO, the EU Delegations and Member State embassies in integrating Agenda 2030 into Joint Programming efforts. Learn more here.

The NIRAS team helped gather knowledge from every mission with respect to the SDGs in a given project, allowing mission templates to be developed to ensure that SDGs are integrated in missions going forward.

“Overall,” Christos said, “this project has both heightened the engagement of EU Member States with partner countries on joint programming of development cooperation and strengthened the commitments on SDG implementation at partner country level ”