Building resilience into U.S. government functions

Guest blog by Adam Harrison

Learning in the Age of Pandemic

In early 2020, I was lucky enough to be selected into the Harvard Kennedy School’s executive education class, “Implementing Public Policy (IPP).” I was thrilled that my supervisors at work had shown the confidence in me and interest in my development to make this opportunity available. Even more, I was excited to spend a week in Cambridge with a diverse group of professionals from across the country and the world. The experience would be enriching . . . and a few good meals in Boston’s North End would be pretty nice, too. 

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From South Africa To Boston and Back

Guest blog written by Nkere Skosana

From the moment I saw the advert on Twitter and read through the content provided, something just told me this is the real deal. I felt there was no way I could not find more about the course. It has always been my approach not to do any academic course for the sake of just obtaining a qualification but to engage in a course that speaks to real issues that we get confronted with as Public Servants on a daily basis.

The initial assignment already gave a hint of what was to come and the approach in terms of policy analysis and implementation. Breaking down the policy challenge in terms of who the critical stakeholders are, determining upfront what meaning of success one has to attach to its implementation was key. 

Getting to HKS, one was struck by the diversity of participants in the course from all walks of life and different continents. Amazingly, there were lots of similarities in terms of the challenges we encounter in our policy environments. The course turned out to be more than what I had expected. It was more interactive and practical and the wealth of experience and knowledge from the team of experts presenting was exceptional.

The course leader provided insights into experiences from different continents and the examples of real life situations and the kind of challenges encountered helped us to realise that PDIA is not a theoretical but practical approach to policy implementation.

Some key learnings

One of the key insights from the course was the distinction between the Plan and Control policies which most institutions use and PDIA. The former may be useful in ensuring the achievement of policy products on time and within budget and this becomes the drill. PDIA on the other hand seeks to drill down to the heart of the problem, explore a variety of options and ensures that policy impacts are achieved which is what people mostly are looking for. 

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Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

written by Matt Andrews

In my last post, I argued that you should prepare to work differently. In this blog  I will offer ideas on doing that. I am informed by my BSC team’s work with countries employing PDIA (problem driven iterative adaptation) in the face of problems (some crises) and the work of people like Dutch Leonard (whose video was included in the last post).

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Let me start with an observation of the organizing structures typical to public organizations (school systems, local governments, national departments, and more). Most of these organizations tend to be bureaucratic hierarchies; with a defined mission determined (or managed) by the people at the top, and pursued through formal processes by people in highly specified jobs. Using words from the last blog, the authorization mechanisms, acceptance requirements, ability needs, and mobilization mechanisms are all set in place. My guess is your organization looks a little like this?

But there are variations of such structure:

  • Some bureaucracies are stand-alone structures like the Figure 1 below. A single school might be an example of this. The  principal sits at the top and everything is led by her/him.
  • Other organizations are bigger hierarchies with multiple embedded hierarchies, as in Figure 2 below. A school district might be an example. The District commissioner leads a system in which other people lead schools B, C, and D. The leadership and coordination tasks are now split across a group.
  • Other organizations are distributed hierarchies (as in diagram 3 below). A state or national government is an example. One hierarchy (A) is the education department. Another (B) is the health, another (C) is the public works department, etc. In these systems, leadership again is about a group.

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Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue flat, fast, and flexible organizing structures

Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy

Guest blog written by Olga Yulikova

It is not surprising to anyone who is a part of the PDIA community that Matt Andrew’s book Building State Capability uses medical metaphors and examples to describe public policy. Like Matt, I too believe that policy-making is a form of therapy for society’s ailments. (Wouldn’t be great if all bureaucrats took a version of a Hippocratic Oath upon entering the service to build a person-centered practice?) And just like medicine, policy work is uncertain and difficult. And the more you learn, the more you understand your limitations. PDIA offers a way to make that task of healing societies a little less treacherous.

I decided to enroll in Implementing Public Policy (IPP) class because I was stuck. I was stuck and I was helpless. I was stuck and I was helpless and I was miserable. I needed something to fix my misery. Coming into the class, I had no idea what to expect. At first I did not really understand the language of PDIA. It all seemed too cerebral to me. My problem was about very poor and unskilled older people who are trying to get a job, any job and just can’t. They rely on the state’s program I administer to help them. The program has limited federal funding and can accommodate less than one percent of the eligible population. We do all we can to help as many as we can, but half the people we serve are just not getting the jobs, even when the economy is fine. Agencies that I work with ask me for more funding, but I don’t have it. All I can do is provide creative solutions to help them. And it is not a new problem for me – after all I have been doing my job for ten years – I simply ran out of ideas on how to solve the problem of chronic and persistent unemployment for this vulnerable population. After ten years of public service, I felt I was a failure.

IPP started with a bang for me – there were people from all over the world with the energy and enthusiasm unmatched in my day to day reality of a state office. They were all highly accomplished, driven, enthusiastic and yet everyone had a similar problem to mine, they all were struggling with their “problems.” Corrupt governments, indifferent agency heads, low budgets, unclear guidance – all familiar aches. We became a team in just a few days. We shared so much in common. Our individual problems became common problems, individual pains became a common condition. And the fantastic and practical PDIA team became our therapists, our mentors on our individual paths to alleviate some of the pain we felt for ourselves and the people we advocate for in our work. Continue reading Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy

Why do we persist so long with a reform approach that does not solve problems?

written by Kate Bridges and Michael Woolcock

In Malawi, efforts at institutional reform have been numerous, earnest and longstanding. Since 1966, there have been more than three times as many World Bank projects with ‘institutional reform’ content  as there have been in any other thematic or sectoral category.

In a recent paper, we argue that these efforts have largely failed. Public scandals such as “Cashgate” – in which about US$ 32 million in government funds was misappropriated between April and September 2013 – are the tip of the iceberg: high profile cases reflecting a logic of corruption that remains unchallenged by reform efforts. Continue reading Why do we persist so long with a reform approach that does not solve problems?

Sequencing in the construction of State capacity: Walk before you can run

Guest blog by Ajay Shah

In thinking about the State, there are two useful principles:

  1. We should embark on things that we can do (i.e. don’t take on things that we don’t have the ability to do); and
  2. We should walk before we run (i.e. do simple things, achieve victory, then move on to a more complex problem).

These simple and obvious ideas have interesting implications for how we think about doing public policy and public administration in a place like India, where there is a crisis of State capacity, where numerous policy initiatives break down in the implementation.

Continue reading Sequencing in the construction of State capacity: Walk before you can run

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.

PDIA Notes 2: Learning to Learn

written by Peter Harrington

After over two years of working with the government of Albania, and as we embark on a new project to work with the government of Sri Lanka, we at the Building State Capability program (BSC) have been learning a lot about doing PDIA in practice.

Lessons have been big and small, practical and theoretical – an emerging body of observations and experience that is constantly informing our work. Amongst other things, we are finding that teams are proving an effective vehicle for tackling problems. We have found that a lot of structure and regular, tight loops of iteration are helping teams reflect and learn. We have found that it is vital to engage with several levels of the bureaucracy at the same time to ensure a stable authorising space for new things to happen. This all amounts to a sort of ‘thick engagement’, where little-and-often type interaction, woven in at many levels, bears more fruit than big set-piece interventions.

Each of these lessons are deserving of deeper exploration in their own right, and we will do so in subsequent posts. For now, I want to draw out some reflections about the real goal of our work, and our theory of change.

In the capacity-building arena, the latest wisdom holds that the best learning comes from doing. We think this is right. Capacity building models that rely purely on workshop or classroom settings and interactions are less effective in creating new know-how than interventions that work alongside officials on real projects, allowing them to learn by working on the job. Many organisations working in the development space now explicitly incorporate this into their methodology, and in so doing promise to ensure delivery of something important alongside the capacity building (think of external organizations that offer assistance in delivery, often by placing advisers into government departments, and promise to ensure a certain goal is achieved and the government capacity to deliver is also enhanced).

It sounds like a win-win (building capabilities while achieving delivery). The problem is that, in practice, when the implementers in the governments inevitably wobble, or get distracted, or pulled off the project by an unsupportive boss (or whatever happens to undermine the process, as has probably happened many times before), the external advisors end up intervening to get the thing done, because that’s what was promised, what the funder often cares more about, and what is measurable.

When that happens, the learning stops. And the idea of learning by doing stops, because the rescue work by external actors signalled that learning by doing—and failing, at least partially, in the process—was at best a secondary objective (and maybe not even a serious one). Think about anything you have ever learned in your life – whether at school or as an adult. If you knew someone was standing by to catch a dropped ball, or in practice was doing most of the legwork, would you have really learned anything? For the institutions where we work, although the deliverable may have been delivered, when the engagement expires, nothing will have changed in the way the institution works in the long run. This applies equally, by the way, to any institution or learning process, anywhere in the world.

The riddle here is this: what really makes things change and improve in an institution, such that delivery is enhanced and capability to deliver is strengthened? The answer is complex, but it boils down to people in the context doing things differently – being empowered to find out what different is and actually pursue it themselves.

In pursuing this answer, we regularly deploy the concept of ‘positive deviance’ in our work: successful behaviors or strategies enabling people to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. Such people are everywhere, sometimes succeeding, and depending on the conditions sometimes failing, to change the way things work – either through their own force of will, or by modelling something different. Methods to find and empower positive deviants within a community have existed for many years. But what if, by cultivating a habit of self-directed work and problem solving, it was possible to not just discover positive deviants but create new ones?

Doing things differently stems from thinking differently, and you only think differently when you learn – it’s more or less the definition of learning. Looked at this way, learning becomes the sine qua non of institutional change. It may not be sufficient on its own – structures, systems and processes still matter – but without a change in paradigm among a critical mass of deviants, those other things (which are the stuff of more traditional interventions) will always teeter on the brink of isomorphism.

We believe that positive deviance comes from learning, especially learning in a self-directed way, and learning about things that matter to the people doing them. If you can catalyse this kind of learning in individuals, you create a different kind of agency for change. If you can go beyond this and catalyse this kind of learnings in groups of individuals within an institution or set of institutions, and create a sufficiently strong holding space for their positive deviance to fertilise and affect others, then gradually whole systems can change. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s any other way that it happens. As Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This is our theory of change. The methods we use – particularly the structured 6-month intensive learning and action workshop we call Launchpad – are trying above all to accelerate this learning by creating a safe space in which to experiment, teach ideas and methods that disrupt the status quo, and create new team dynamics and work habits among bureaucrats. By working with senior and political leaders at the same time, we are trying to foster different management habits, to help prevent positive deviance being stamped out. In doing all this, the goal is to cultivate individuals, teams, departments and ultimately institutions that have a habit of learning – which is what equips them to adapt and solve their own problems.

This does not mean that the model is necessarily better at achieving project delivery than other methods out there, although so far it has been effective at that too. The difference is that we are willing to let individuals or even teams fail to deliver, because it is critical for the learning, and without learning there is no change in the long term. Doing this is sometimes frustrating and costly, and certainly requires us gritting our teeth and not intervening, but what we see so often is agents and groups of agents working their way out of tricky situations with better ideas and performance than when they went in. They are more empowered and capable to provide the agency needed for their countries’ development. This is the goal, and it can be achieved.

 

 

Hello Organization Man: the importance of old (and boring) administration in a new (and exciting) world

written by Matt Andrews

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran the following great Op-ed on the lack of administrative focus in governance systems. This is an important article. We need to be saying ‘Hello’ when it comes to learning about organization… no matter how mundane it seems. This inspires me to spend even more time teaching about bureaucracy. For more see my blog on mundane and my course entitled Getting things done in development.

Here’s an excerpt from the Op-ed entitled Goodbye organization man.

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems. …

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard (the rule of nobody) have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing board, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

The boring bureuacrat