On being and becoming a “development expert”

written by Michael Woolcock

The Three Stages of Expertise by Simon Wardley

Half-way through my HKS course on ‘Social Institutions and Economic Development’ I host a class, usually timed to be given on the eve of spring break, on what it means to be a “development expert”, especially as it pertains to engaging with social institutions. For better or worse, I now have enough grey hair and professional visibility to often have that awkward title bestowed upon me, but while I like to think I have come to know a little about development processes, and probably know more now than I did 25 years ago, the notion of being deemed a development “expert” is a label I try to wear lightly, if I must wear it at all. In this class, I stress that technical expertise is real, rare, its application deeply necessary and consequential, and for certain kinds of development problems, exactly what you need. For other kinds of development problems, however – and certainly the bulk of those problems associated with building state capability – routinely prioritizing the singular deployment of a narrow form of technical expertise as the optimal solution is itself part of the problem (in the sense articulated in the “Solutions when the solution is the problem” paper I wrote with Lant Pritchett back in 2004). 

These days, my preferred metaphorical, ideal-type juxtaposition is between expertise that fills a space and expertise that creates and protects space; this distinction roughly corresponds to, respectively, Theory X and Y in the management literature (as famously articulated by Douglas McGregor in 1960). I like this distinction expressed in the terms of ‘filling’ versus ‘protecting’ space because it broadly reflects the different skills and sensibilities that, to me, are so readily on display in development decision-making – whether in the board room, the online seminar, the policy forum, the diplomatic table, or the village meeting hall. The space-fillers primarily perceive their job, and their kindred colleagues’ job, as one of “controlling” (empirically, epistemologically, managerially) the extraneous “noisy” factors intruding on the space they’ve carefully “identified” so that, into this space, their particular, somewhere-verified “solution” can be deftly but decisively inserted. It’s what Atul Gawande calls the savior doctor model, in which one provides “a definitive intervention at a critical moment… with a clear, calculable, frequently transformative outcome.” I’ve checked the key indicators (‘vital signs’), asked my go-to questions, diligently eliminated various possibilities; I’ve scanned the decision-tree as I understand it, and determined that the highest-probability solution to this problem is X. The faster and more “cleanly” I can do this, the more genuinely ‘expert’ (and efficient and effective) I believe myself to be. Providing such decisive input into this space is emotionally thrilling; it vindicates all my years of elite education and hard work, pays me real money, yields the tantalizing allure of future successes at grander scales with higher stakes, and bestows upon me tangible professional accolades and high social status. Like nature, I abhor a vacuum, so I’ve confidently stepped in where the “less rigorous” fear to tread. I’m trained and socialized to think counterfactually, so I can’t help but indulge my vainglorious ceteris paribus fantasy that, but for my presence at that moment, things would have turned out so differently… Heck, I’ve changed history!

Continue reading On being and becoming a “development expert”

Public Leadership Through Crisis 1: Can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats?

written by Matt Andrews

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Governments are most important in times of public crisis. This is where individuals—no matter how talented or self-reliant—look to their governments for help; to empower or use or deploy the powers and potentialities of the collective on behalf of that collective.

But many people tasked with leading public organizations in times of crises, struggle to know if and how to rise to the occasion. They know that people are looking to them for a lot, but wonder if they and their organizations are ready and/or capable to handle the many tasks.

This is a particular challenge in governments that have low capability or are in the process of trying to build capability. Crises involve threats that can easily overwhelm state capability, especially where such  capability is limited to start with.

Leaders in such situations can easily feel like captains on small boats facing  high winds and big waves. I have recently been in touch  with a few such leaders, asking something like the following: “How do I help my people navigate and survive through high winds and big waves in our little boat? What kind of leadership is required to do this navigation?”

I plan  to use this series of blog posts to offer ideas for leaders asking  this question; on the subject of public leadership in and through crisis.

I write at a time when the Covid-19 crisis is peaking in some countries but only just hitting many countries where I typically work; especially in the developing world. I am not a public health specialist, and cannot therefore offer ideas on WHAT your  policy response should be in the face of this crisis. But I do a lot of work on HOW you might organize your response—communicating, coordination, structuring the process, and managing yourself. That’s what I will focus on. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 1: Can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats?

The Big Stuck in State Capability and Premature Load Bearing, Some New Evidence

written by Lant Pritchett

In the book Building State Capability one of the explanations of the very slow progress shown in acquiring effective and capability administration in developing countries was that the adoption of “best practice” from countries with different and higher capability administration actually made it more difficult to build capability.  The attempts to do too much, too soon, with too little through adopting formal laws and policies that required sophisticated and robust capabilities for implementation did not help, and in fact hurt.  While some people argued “stretch targets” would create pressures for progress, instead the gap between formal laws, regulations, policies and existing capability stretched the robustness of organizations to breaking, producing low level capability traps and a abetted a “big stuck.”

A recent working paper provides some new evidence of this “premature load bearing” using data from the Doing Business indicators and the Enterprise Surveys, both from the World Bank.  The Doing Business indicators provide each year for each country a single data point on how many days it would take a typical firm to get a permit for a construction warehouse (taken as a generic kind of construction permit) according to the existing formal laws.  This measures the de jure, formal, regulatory requirements for doing business.  In many of the same countries the World Bank also surveyed firms in the Enterprise Survey and, among the many questions they asked, they asked firms who had actually built a new structure how long it had taken them to receive their permit.  This is the de facto measure of how business is actually done.

Previous work, Hallward-Driemeier and Pritchett (2015) showed that (a) across countries there is very little correlation between the DB and ES days for a construction permit (or opening a business or clearing customs), (b) the DB average across countries for a construction permit is around 190 days whereas the ES reported times have a median of around 30 days, and (c) the variance across countries in the times they report is very large, much larger than the variability across countries in ES reported median times—the difference in times between the firms reporting fast times and slow times in the same country is larger than the difference between the fastest and slowest countries.

Continue reading The Big Stuck in State Capability and Premature Load Bearing, Some New Evidence

Implementing Public Policy: Is it possible to escape the ‘Public Policy Futility’ trap?

written by Matt Andrews

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Polls suggest that governments across the world face high levels of citizen dissatisfaction, and low levels of citizen trust. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found, for instance, that only 43% of those surveyed trust Canada’s government. Only 15% of those surveyed trust government in South Africa, and levels are low in other countries too—including Brazil (at 24%), South Korea (28%), the United Kingdom (36%), Australia, Japan, and Malaysia (37%), Germany (38%), Russia (45%), and the United States (47%). Similar surveys find trust in government averaging only 40-45% across member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and suggest that as few as 31% and 32% of Nigerians and Liberians trust government.

There are many reasons why trust in government is deficient in so many countries, and these reasons differ from place to place. One common factor across many contexts, however, is a lack of confidence that governments can or will address key policy challenges faced by citizens.

Studies show that this confidence deficiency stems from citizen observations or experiences with past public policy failures, which promote jaundiced views of their public officials’ capabilities to deliver. Put simply, citizens lose faith in government when they observe government failing to deliver on policy promises, or to ‘get things done’. Incidentally, studies show that public officials also often lose faith in their own capabilities (and those of their organizations) when they observe, experience or participate in repeated policy implementation failures. Put simply, again, these public officials lose confidence in themselves when they repeatedly fail to ‘get things done’.

Continue reading Implementing Public Policy: Is it possible to escape the ‘Public Policy Futility’ trap?

We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

written by Tim O’Brien

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Leader of farming cooperative in central Sri Lanka that diversified into ginger production as drought increasingly hurt rice cultivation.

If you live in a developed country, odds are that you think about climate change as something that will harm future generations — your children or your grandchildren perhaps. But if you live in a poor country, chances are much higher that you think of climate change as a source of problems that are affecting you and your family today. Climate change may not be the most important problem for you if you live in a developing country, but odds are that it is making your problems worse.

The climate is changing globally, but vulnerabilities are faced locally, usually in ways that exacerbate existing development challenges. For most poor farmers, when and how the rain falls matters a great deal. But climate change is tending to affect seasonal patterns on which many farmers rely, paradoxically increasing the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods, often in the same places. In many poor cities, climate change is increasing water scarcity, flooding, landslides and overall risk of extreme weather events. For people without electricity in tropical countries, heat waves are increasingly deadly events. For communities that depend on fishing as a means of both income and food, ocean acidification is both an economic and health issue. For countries with weak infrastructure, limited budgets and undiversified economies, macroeconomic vulnerability to weather shocks continues to grow more severe. Continue reading We recently ran a PDIA course on climate change adaptation. Why?

Building capability: the true success of PDIA

written by Anisha Poobalan

The PDIA team has been working in Sri Lanka for the past six months with five talented and motivated government teams. This work is challenging and demands hard work by government officials and yet through short, repeated iterations, real progress is achieved. The teams update a facilitator every two weeks while also preparing for their next two week ‘sprint’. Once a month, the teams meet together at a ‘Launchpad’ session to update each other, evaluate their progress, adapt their action plans accordingly and set out for the next month of hard work. I have the privilege of sitting in on team meetings every week. This work takes time, it takes perseverance and it requires trust, and the task of attacking some of the most challenging areas in government is frustrating but absolutely worth it with each breakthrough. While impossible to articulate completely, this post attempts to reflect the ground reality of practicing PDIA in order to build state capability.

Emergence, in complexity theory, is the process by which lessons learned from new engagements and activities lead to a unique recombination of ideas and capabilities that result in unpredictable solutions. Emergence is evident in each PDIA team. For example, as one team made progress on their problem, they identified a constraint that needed to be addressed if they were to succeed. Another team had a similar realization and eventually the idea for a potential solution cropped up and an entire team was formed around it. As one of the team members noted, the more we engage, the more opportunities arise and connections are made and we will get lucky soon!

As the teams prepare for their lucky moment and produce tangible products, the individual capability built is the true success of this work.  As one team leader said, ‘We haven’t done something like this in the 30 years I have been [working] here!’ At the first launchpad session, a team member told me about experiences they had had at similar workshops. ‘We meet and discuss various topics and then leave. But I think this will be different, we must actually do something.’ Faced with a new challenge, undertaking a task he had no experience in, this member is now an expert and motivates the others along. From the onset, he has been determined to achieve his targets and has proven to the rest in that team, that hard work and genuine interest can lead to unexpected, impressive learning and results.

Another team member, an experienced yet skeptical team leader, did not leave the first launchpad session quite as confident. She didn’t believe this work would lead to real results and doubted they would have the necessary political backing. A few months later, she is now the most motivated, engaged, focused member on his team. ‘So many people come to collect information, then they put down their ideas in a document and give it to us to act on. This just ends up on a shelf. It’s better not to talk, but to do something – so we are happy! Especially the support from the higher-level authorizers has given us confidence to keep working’. This team embarked on a journey from confusion to clarity. They had to trust this approach, take action and gradually fill the information gaps they did not even know existed a few months before. It has been frustrating, and yet they continue in good faith that with each piece of information gathered they are closer to a clear, achievable vision for their project. The capability to create project profiles like this has grown in this team and will be useful to their colleagues across government. These capabilities are the results of hard work, intentional engagement, and consistent expansion of authority.

Some people ask, ‘So what makes a good team? What departments should they come from or what expertise should they have?’ My answer to that is simple: a successful team comprises of people who are willing to work; government officials willing to trust a completely new approach and work hard. Hard working teams are essential to the success of PDIA and while expertise, seniority, and experience may be considered necessary, without genuine hard work, any team, no matter how talented, will fail. Here in Sri Lanka, each team is unique, with varying weaknesses and strengths they have learned to work around. Some teams lack strong leadership which forces team members to take greater responsibility and ownership in decision making and motivation. Other teams have strong leadership so some members took on less responsibility and at points didn’t contribute at all to achieving the teams’ goals. Some teams have capable workers frustrated by their lack of authority, and others have the authority but lack capability. There are teams that perform well with organized deadlines and targets, while others struggle to set deadlines beyond the coming week. Each team’s composition has adapted as the work evolved, and each team has achieved great things through their diverse skill sets, past experience, commitment to real work and time-bound action.

I hope these field notes help give a sense of what PDIA is like on the ground and how this approach, although difficult and emotionally draining, can lead to new, or make use of latent, capabilities within government.

If you are interested in learning more about the Sri Lanka work, you can read the targeting team working paper.

Anisha Poobalan worked with us on the PDIA Sri Lanka project from September 2016 to September 2017. This is part of a blog series that is tagged “PDIA Journey,” written by people who have participated in a PDIA process. 

BSC website gets a makeover

As you may have noticed, our website was antiquated, to say the least. The task of giving it a makeover has been on the back burner for a while now. We are proud to finally announce that our new website is live!

The site provides an overview of PDIA, links to our blog and lists our publications by policy area. We have a page for each of our workshops which include videos and slides: Untying Development and Doing Development Differently. We have also included a map of the BSC video series – a set of short 2-5 minute videos highlighting the key elements of our approach. We hope this will provide an overview of how the videos fit together.

Take a look at it and let us know what you think!

Why many development initiatives have achievement gaps…and what to do about this

written by Matt Andrews

Yesterday I blogged about Hirschman’s Hiding Hand. As I interpret it, a central part of his idea is that many development projects:

  • focus on solving complex problems, and
  • only once they have started does a ‘hiding hand’ lift to show how hard the problem is to solve,
  • but because policy-makers and reformers are already en route to solving the problem they don’t turn away from the challenges, and
  • so they start getting creative and finding ways to really solve the problem. Initial plans and designs are shelved in favor of experiments with new ideas, and after much muddling the problem is solved (albeit with unforeseen or hybrid end products).

I like the argument. But why do I see so many development projects that don’t look like this?

I see projects where solutions or projects are introduced and don’t have much impact, but then they are tried again and again–with processes that don’t allow one to recognize the unforeseen challenges, and rigid designs that don’t allow one to change or experiment or pivot around constraints and limits. Instead of adjusting when the going gets tough, many development projects carry on with the proposed solution and produce whatever limited form is possible.

I think this is because many reforms are not focused on solving problems; they are rather focused on gaining short-run legitimacy (money and support) which comes through simple promises of quick solutions. This is the most rank form of isomorphism one can imagine; where one mimics purely for show… so you get a ‘fake’ that lacks the functionality of the real thing…

Let me use Public Financial Management (PFM) reforms as an example.

What problems do these reforms try to solve? Quite a few, potentially. They could try to solve problems of governments overspending, or problems of governments not using money in the most efficient and effective manner (and ensuring services are delivered), or of governments using money in ways that erode trust between the state and citizens (and more).

Now, let me ask how many reforms actually examine whether they solve these problems? Very few, actually. Mostly, reforms ask about whether a government has introduced a new multi-year budget or an integrated financial management system. Or a new law on fiscal rules, or a new procurement system.

Sometimes the reforms will ask questions about whether fiscal discipline is improved (largely because this is something outsiders like the IMF focus on) but I seldom see any reforms–or any PFM assessments (like PEFA or even the assessments of transparency) asking if services are better delivered after reforms, or if reforms enhance trust between citizens and the state. I don’t even see efforts to systematically capture information about intermediate products that might lead to these ‘solved problems’. For instance:

  • Do we have evidence that goods are procured and delivered more efficiently (time and money-wise) after reform?
  • Do we have any systematic data to show that our new human resource management systems are helping ensure that civil servants are present and working well, and that our new payment systems pay them on time (and do a better job of limiting payments to ghost workers)?
  • Do we have any consistent evidence to show that suppliers are paid more promptly after reforms?
  • Is there any effort to see if IT systems are used as we assume they will be used, after reforms?
  • Does anyone look to see if infrastructure projects are more likely to start on time and reach completion after costly project management interventions?
  • Do we have records to show that infrastructure receives proper maintenance after reform?
  • Is there any effort to see if taxpayers trust government more with their money?

This is a long list of questions (but there are many more), and I am sure that some reforms do try to capture data on some of them (if you’ve measured these in a reform, please comment as such…it would be interesting and important to know). Most reforms I have observed don’t try to do it at all, however, which was the focus of a recent discussion on the role of PFM and service delivery Time to Care About Service Delivery? Specialists from around the world were asked whether PFM reforms improve service delivery and the answer was “we think so…we expect so…we hope so…BUT WE CAN’T TELL YOU BECAUSE WE DON’T ACTUALLY ASK EXPLICIT QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS.”

My concern with this is manifold: (i) Does the failure to ask if we are solving the problems suggest that we as a community of reformers don’t really care about the problems in the first place? (ii) Does it mean that we will not be sensitive to the situations Hirschman speaks about when he discusses unforeseen challenges that undermine our ability to address problems (simply because we don’t focus on the problems)?  (iii) Does this also mean that we will not have any moments where we explore alternatives and experiment with real solutions that help to overcome hurdles en route to solving problems?

Unfortunately, I think the observations of gaps after reforms speak to all of these interpretations. And this is why many reforms and interventions do not end up solving problems. In these cases, we get the half-baked versions of the pre-planned solution…with no adjustment and no ‘solved problem’. PFM systems look better but still don’t function–so payments remain late, wages are unpaid to some and overpaid to many, services are not delivered better, and trust actually declines. Most worrying: we have spent years doing the reforms, and now need to pretend they work..and have no learning about why the problems still fester.

The solution (maybe): In my mind this can be rectified–and we can move towards producing more projects like those Hirschman observed–by

  • focusing reforms on problems, explicitly, aggressively, from the start;
  • measuring progress by looking at indicators of ‘problem solved’ (like improved levels of trust after PFM reforms) and intermediate indicators we think will get us there (better payment of contracts, more efficient procurement, etc;
  • regularly monitoring this progress;
  • being on the lookout for expected unexpecteds (things that we didn’t know about that make our initial solutions less impactful); and
  • being willing to adjust what we started with to ensure we produce real solutions to real problems–functional improvements and not just changes in form.

For more, read This is PFM which advocates a functional approach to thinking about and doing PFM reform.

Hirschman’s Hiding Hand and Problem Driven Change

written by Matt Andrews

I referred to Albert Hirschman’s work on the “Principle of the Hiding Hand” in my class today. It is a great principle, and has real application when thinking about PDIA and problem driven change.

In his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” Hirschman argues that creative solutions most frequently come from adapting to tasks that turn out to be more challenging than we expect.

In Hirschman’s words, “men engage successfully in problem-solving [when] they take up problems which they think they can solve, find them more difficult than expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unsuspected difficulties – and sometimes even succeed.”

It’s really beautiful, because it takes as a given some facts that we often think stand in the way of doing flexible, PDIA-type development. Hirschman expects that decision makers will tackle problems, often adopt solutions that look attractive but are hard to pull off (perhaps like big best practice type initiatives), and will overestimate the potential results.

He argues that they wouldn’t try to do the challenging things that development demands if they didn’t think this way. So, he advises to ‘go with it’ …. but then wait for the unexpected… in the form of complexities, constraints, hidden difficulties, etc.

When these unforseen difficulties emerge, Hirschman argues, we have the opportunity to become creative–and to iterate and experiment and find and fit ways to solve the problems that initiated the work in the first place … building on the sunk costs already incurred in pursuing the big, best practice, perfect solution. (saying something like “we’ve come so far…let’s now iterate to ensure we actually solve the problem we set out to solve.”)

Beautiful: Start where you are, focus on solving problems, try the big best practice (but hard to actually do) solution, and become creative when you hit the challenges…

What he assumes is that you have space for flexible change and PDIA-type innovation because of the sunk costs associated with past (or current) reform. An interesting assumption, that I think we can look at academically and reflect on practically.

Required and fundamentally vital reading for anyone in development.

Doing Development Differently: Day 2 Summary

Yesterday was the last day of Doing Development Differently (#differentdev). A group of about 40 development professionals from around the world met to discuss positive cases where development initiatives (call them projects, interventions, activities or whatever) have led to real results and impact. It was another full day with two DDD Exchange Sessions, a PDIA example and another wind tunnel meeting. View the storify to see all the content, including videos, tweets, photos and blogs (Duncan Green, Alan Hudson).

We are delighted to share the rest of 7:30 presentations.

You can also watch Matt Andrews closing remarks below. Stay tuned for the upcoming Manifesto from the workshop!