Promoting design for global business in Brazil

Guest blog by Isabel Tarrisse da Fontoura

“The flow of life envelopes everything. That’s life: it heats up and cools down, it tightens and then loosens up, it becomes calm and then unrests. What it wants from us is courage”.

João Guimaraes Rosa

1. An act of courage

The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) program Implementing Public Policy (IPP) is an act of courage. It is so from the day you decide to commit to six months of action learning in the middle of a global pandemic to, today, as we end this journey with 142 peers from 47 countries and the HKS team, and we’re moving ahead working on pressing challenges we care too much about to let go.

The good part is that every ending is a new beginning.

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Using PDIA to Improve Public Education in Brazil

written by Salimah Samji

[Image above: São Luis, Maranhão, Brazil – December 2021]

In August 2021, we began an engagement with Instituto Sonho Grande (ISG) in Brazil to build the capability of public servants working in secretariats of education in the states of Maranhão and Paraíba.  

In this virtual action learning program, 60 public servants working across 11 teams, learned how to use PDIA to solve locally nominated problems, through action-oriented work.

The teams in Maranhão worked on the following problems:

  • Low learning in Mathematics
  • High teacher turnover
  • School dropouts
  • Age-grade distortion
  • School feeding programs

The teams in Paraíba worked on the following problems:

  • Low learning in Portuguese and Mathematics
  • Vacancies for Teachers and Technicians
  • Data for strategic decision making
  • School infrastructure
  • Clarity of roles and responsibilities
  • Budget execution
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Working on trade in Mexico from Sao Paulo

Guest blog written by Oscar Benitez

We all experienced the turmoil caused by Covid-19 in 2020. We will spend years trying to describe how it became a huge setback for every activity and economic sector. In my case, I spent several months putting on hold most of the projects of the year, to eventually seeing them fall down one by one. By May, we were more than discouraged: half of our yearly planning was already cancelled, and the other half was on the way to suffering the same fate. To make things worse, the end of it was not on sight. From every angle, 2020 was a devastating year.

But it was the year I went to Harvard.

My work in the Mexican Foreign Service is to deliver solutions to any problem that falls in my hands. I have done that during the last five years I have served in the Mexican Consulate in Sao Paulo. My work doesn’t have the glamour of policy drafting or high politics, and is more about identifying opportunities on the field, matching counterparts with the same interests and taking care of the mountains of paperwork that come after that.

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A Problem-driven Approach to Complexity, Public Policy and Economic Growth

Guest blog written by  Claudio Roberto Amitrano 

What is development? How is it driven? How can we get there? Who is it for? What do countries have in common? What are their specific problems? How do we identify them? How do we find solutions? Who will lead, authorize, design and implement them? Who are ‘We’ and how do we build the ‘Sense of us’? What can we learn from the policymaking process, working in multi-agent teams and doing things together? 

These issues come to my mind when I think about the Leading Economic Growth (LEG) course from Harvard Kennedy School. However, those questions were presented not to show an absolute answer, but to teach us a way of thinking about them, a method to identify the important problems for our societies and to empower us to find and implement solutions that fix them. 

Despite not providing definitive answers, the course touched upon some clues. Firstly, it seems that economic development is related to technology, which can be divided in three parts: 1) embodied knowledge (machines); 2) codified knowledge (books and manuals); 3) tacit knowledge (knowhow in people’s brains). While the first two are relatively easy to diffuse and absorb, the latest is not. 

The way countries use technology to foster development is strongly related to complexity. The more diverse and less ubiquitous the set of goods and services a country produce and trade, the more complex and developed its economy is. In turn, diversity and ubiquity are conditioned by the amount of different knowhow a country can absorb and amass. Although each individual might know less, the society, as whole, knows more. The image of the scrabble game is quite interesting to exemplify this idea. A word to be written needs letters. The more letters one have, the more different and complex words one can write. 

In this sense, growth is associated with the country’s ability to ‘jump’ to nearby activities, whose knowhow is similar to the ones already developed. On the other hand, it might be related to its ability to ‘jump’ to faraway activities, whose knowhow is quite different from the ones already learnt, but through strategic policies can be acquired. Notwithstanding, the ‘growth problem’ is not only connected to these issues. It also depends on the removal of the binding constraints that hinder progress and the policies countries develop to deal with them. It leads us to another way of thinking complexity. 

Complexity can also be seen as problems with multiple moving parts and interdependent players, in which relationships, their properties of self-organisation and interconnections defines their trajectories. From the standpoint of public policy, identifying and finding solutions to complex problems requires a Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation’ (PDIA) approach, instead of a ‘Solution-and Leader-Driven Change’ (SLDC), in which one can construct and deconstruct problems. From the perspective of economics, it requires a Growth Diagnostic approach, whose main objective is to find the binding constraint to economic growth. Based on the idea of  complementarity between inputs, as well as between institutions, this methodology is able to avoid or at least minimize the second-best interactions problem. 

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Early Childhood Education in Brazil

Guest blog written by Beatriz Abuchaim

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A big headache. It was what I felt in the introductory class at Kennedy School. It was not my first experience at Harvard. I had taken a course in 2018 at Center on the Developing Child, but it didn’t have the same pressure I was feeling as a Public Policy Implementation student. My company was paying for me to be there and Harvard gave me a partial scholarship. While I was listening to Matt introduce the course to us, my painful head did not stop with mixed thoughts: “I should give my best to show I deserve all this investment. I feel so special to represent my country in such a selected group of people. I am worried if I will be able to implement my project”.

When I am overwhelmed with so many feelings my body complains with a migraine. Then I have to stop. It is a way to tell myself: take it easy. Breathe. Calm down. After the first night in pain in Cambridge, I could slow things down. During the week, I felt motivated by the professors and engaged with colleagues. Always feeling exhausted with so many assignments and tasks, but fulfilled. I came back home feeling empowered and secure. And missing my PDIA folks already.

My problem in a few words

Early Childhood Education (ECE) in Brazil currently covers 34% of 0 to 3-year-old population and 93% of 4 to 6-year-old population. These percentages represent eight million children enrolled in ECE.  The public sector is responsible for 70% of enrollments. In the past 10 years,  we have had a significant increase in the number of enrollments, but with budget limitations, so the quality of services may vary quite substantially nationwide. The municipalities, which are responsible for implementing  ECE, are struggling to improve service quality.

Although Early Childhood Education in Brazil has many problems regarding the quality of services, we still do not have a national assessment that could provide data about children’s development and learning environment. Without data, policy managers struggle to plan, improve and make decisions about ECE.

My problem is “lack of systematized information about ECE quality”. Working with PDIA and presenting my fishbone to as many people as I possibly could ended up with 12 causes and 16 subcauses for the problem.

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Here I will present three that were my entry points during this year, in other words, the causes I selected to try to address first:

  1.  The education area has criticisms and resistances about ECE assessment, mainly because the teachers are afraid that the results are used in a negative way: to punish them or stigmatize the children with low results.
  2. Municipal ECE managers are not used to working with data. They do not have access to systematized data, so they did not develop the skills to analyze results and use those to inform policies.
  3. There are no instruments adapted for the Brazilian context. Until now the assessments implemented in the country used translated instruments, which were not totally suitable for ECE in Brazil.

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Finding the Fringes of Formality: Organizational Capability in Street-Level Bureaucracies in Brazil

Guest blog written by Susana Cordeiro Guerra

Why is it that, despite the abundant resources invested and the largely favorable macroeconomic conditions that have prevailed until recently, middle-income countries have been unable to systematically deliver quality basic services, such as education and safety, to their citizens? Despite a wide variety of attempts to improve these crucial public services, results have failed to meet expectations.

Efforts to build state capabilities have often been influenced by the practice of the developed countries, traditionally especially the large Weberian bureaucracy model but increasingly in recent years models emphasizing less formal or strict approaches to bureaucratic performance and service delivery, such as those using the private sector as a rubric. Developing countries have applied various frameworks for improving service delivery and bureaucratic reform over the last 50 years – and yet there has been little to no significant convergence to developed country service provision levels (Pritchett 2013).

This is more than a puzzle. It has been a cause for revolt. Over the past few years, citizens have repeatedly risen in protest across the globe – notably in Brazil – to demand better service delivery and more efficient and fair government. What these protests highlight is actually a fundamental crisis of the state. If states cannot deliver better quality services in light of rising wealth, education, and expectations, can they sustain legitimacy?

This problem therefore calls for renewed scholarly and policy attention to how states can better perform these crucial functions, and thus to the performance of state bureaucracies. It also calls for novel approaches to how to resolve this problem. This dissertation project takes up this call by focusing attention on the too often neglected role of organizational performance and its role in improved service delivery by state bureaucracies. In particular, I focus on the under-investigated problems of organizational capability, its causes, and its relationship to positive organizational outputs in the context of “middle capability” countries.

I investigate the challenge of improving state capability by looking closely at the dynamics of Brazil, a paradigmatic and large middle-income country that has struggled with this very set of problems for a number of decades. In particular, I examine why there is variation in reform implementation in front-line bureaucratic units in three different sectors: education, policing and industrial policy. These sectors represent three different types of street-level (non-logistical) bureaucracies in a state of “middle capability” like Brazil. I chose case studies in each sector that have been deemed successes in reform implementation, but that actually exhibited tremendous variation in the management of the front-line service delivery units.

My question is: Why do some schools, police pacification units and innovation institutes do better than others? My hypothesis is that bureaucratic behavior is important to explaining this.

To research the question, I have drawn on semi-structured surveys, with both open- and close-ended questions to examine the behavioral patterns of managers (police commanders, school principals and innovation institute directors) of these front-line units. Having examined nearly 160 units across three sectors, I have found that purely structural explanations cannot account for this variation. For instance, I found units in the least likely places that were being very well managed while others in favorable settings that were not well managed.

So what accounts for this variation? I argue that an important part of this success under these conditions is related to how bureaucrats in middle management approach their responsibilities, and especially how they deal with fulfilling their responsibilities in light of the rules and protocols under which they operate. In particular, I hypothesize and have found evidence that the most successful are the middle-level bureaucrats who share a particular behavioral profile – a profile I refer to as operating “at the fringes of formality.”

The fringes of formality behavioral profile entails three main characteristics: middle-level agents who exhibit initiative, spend time on strategic rather than administrative or tactical functions and who operate in a particular way in the bureaucracy, husbanding and spending bureaucratic capital in a way that is innovative and results-oriented, but respects the rules and the interests of the organization. This differentiates such behavior both from model Weberian bureaucrats who strictly follow rules and protocols but also from jeitinho bureaucrats who simply seek convenient workarounds without reference to the interests of the larger organization or rules.

What do these three characteristics that describe the fringes of formality behavior mean in practice? Middle-level agents who have initiative show a strong sense of de facto autonomy and are energetic in the pursuit of solutions to organizational challenges within their appropriate sphere in the bureaucracy. Middle-level agents who spend their time largely on strategic functions are mostly involved in planning and abstract thinking, as opposed to administrative and routinized functions. Lastly, agents who are operating at the fringes of formality use their bureaucratic capital in a way that is useful and productive to the organization’s interests but tangential to the rules and protocols rather than strictly following them. In doing so, these agents are able to stretch and create space within rules without breaking them and in a manner that also benefits the organization as a whole.

I have found evidence that this behavior is present in organizations in Brazil, but also that it seems to be associated with positive administrative or intermediate outputs from the relevant level of their organizations. This, in turn, is associated with better organizational performance.

It is important to note that the aim of the project is to explain the variation in reform implementation across front-line administrative units by examining the relationship between behavioral profiles and intermediate organizational outputs. The aim of the project is not to examine whether given bureaucracies or organizational programs and initiatives lead to improved outcomes and overall performance in the sector. Rather, the aim is to identify the kinds of bureaucratic behavior that are associated with better bureaucratic performance in middle capability settings. Thus, the focus is on evaluating what causes bureaucratic competence, not with the evaluating programs themselves. Of course, while good programs are important to good public outcomes, so too bureaucratic competence is essential to effective public service provision.

Ultimately, the dissertation project has found a profile of behavior that seems to be associated with positive organizational outputs. This behavior is not the typical behavior that is commonly understood to be “proper” or “optimal” bureaucratic behavior. It is a behavior that actually somewhat deviates from the norm of what is considered “good” bureaucratic behavior. The upshot is that the behavior that actually works is one that is more bottom-up, more organic, and not the one that seems “the best” from a distance or in the abstract. In other words, there are practices currently being evolved or developed on the ground, within bureaucracies without top-down guidance or management that are working, even if they do not really conform to what is usually understood as best practice. These are the practices that can allow the middle-level manager to free their respective front-line unit of the middle capability trap and move to a more Weberian looking type of bureaucracy in the long run.