A Journey of Inward Looking and Quick Wins in South Africa

Guest blog by Busikazi Futshane

My expectations of Implementing Public Policy (IPP)

I enrolled in Implementing Public Policy programme because I since learned that I am dealing with a complex policy challenge. My interest was to understand how to deal with uncertainty and unknown factors in policy implementation. I wanted new insights, tools to ease bottle necks, and ways to strengthen the plan and control approach in the implementation. The crucial role of engaging authorisers and involving interest groups came up strongly in the programme and this was of great assistance. The entire IPP programme went beyond my expectations and further strengthened my leadership skills.

Continue reading A Journey of Inward Looking and Quick Wins in South Africa

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!

Doing Development Differently: Day 1 Summary

Today was the first day of Doing Development Differently (#differentdev). It was a full day with two DDD Exchange Sessions, a design thinking session and a wind tunnel meeting. View the storify to see all the content, including videos, tweets and photos.

When we designed this workshop, we wanted to maximize the opportunity to hear from as many people as possible. Specifically, we wanted

  • to show that it is possible to do development differently;
  • the participants to discern key principles and cross-cutting modalities or tools;
  • to explore whether we could promote a vibrant Community of Practice for those trying to do development differently.

To facilitate this, we asked our presenters to prepare a 7:30 minute talk —with no powerpoints or visual accompaniments. The talk had to address the following questions:

  1. What problem were you trying to solve?
  2. How had you/your organization/others addressed this problem in the past?
  3. What did you do?
  4. How did you manage the politics of your work?
  5. How did you ensure learning in the process?

We are delighted to share the first set of 7:30 presentations: Michael Woolcock, Zack Brisson, Tim Williamson, and Kay Winning. Here are some key principles that cut across all the presenters:

  • Humility: We don’t know the answers
  • Articulate principles that can scale
  • Donors role: broker, convenor, facilitator, adviser
  • Understand context: listening, relationships and personal networks are central
  • Need feet on-the-ground to support the process
  • Create space for local solutions and local ownership
  • Embrace and navigate politics: work with what you have
  • Building and sustaining broad coalitions: middle/low level bureaucrats, many stakeholders at all levels
  • Iterative messy process: one that evolves over time, problems change, solutions change
  • Built-in rapid cycles of learning
  • Refine problem definition: focus on what really needs to be solved
  • Take advantage of windows of opportunity (shocks, critical junctures, etc)
  • Adaptability: thinking strategically but building on flexibility

Follow #differentdev and storify for live coverage of Day 2.

Doing Development Differently 2014

Last October, we hosted a one-day workshop entitled, Untying Development: Promoting Governance and Government with Impact. The day brought together different voices to discuss the challenge of creating a governance agenda that focuses on solving country-specific problems, involves local people through flexible and context-fitted processes, and emphasizes learning in the reform process.

We are proud to announce a two-day follow up workshop entitled, Doing Development Differently to be held on October 22-23, 2014 at the Harvard Kennedy School. This event is an opportunity to share practical lessons and insights, country experience, and to experiment first hand with selected methodologies and design thinking.The aim of the event is to start to build a shared community of practice, and to crystallize what we are learning about what doing development differently really looks like in practice. This event is co-hosted with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), with funding from the Governance Partnership Facility.

Follow #differentdev on Twitter for live coverage.

The role of PDIA in fragile states

The coherence and effectiveness of engagement with the world’s ‘fragile and conflict-affected states’—beyond ethical imperatives and geo-strategic considerations—turns on answers to two vexing questions. First, on what defensible basis is any given country, at any given historical moment, deemed to be (or not to be) ‘fragile’? Second, if a defining characteristic of state fragility is low levels of capability to implement core responsibilities, how can international agencies best support domestic public organizations to acquire capability?

The first issue may appear to be a methodological one (wherein more and better data would provide a firmer empirical foundation on which to base key decisions) but any determination, especially of marginal cases, must also be grounded in a correspondingly comprehensive theory of change. Similarly, the optimal response to the second issue may appear to be importing technical and rigorously verified (‘best practice’) solutions, but in fact it is more likely to require a qualitatively different strategy, one able to experiment with alternative design specifications and adapt in real time to changing contextual realities (thereby iterating towards customized ‘best fit’ solutions).

In his new paper, Engaging with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States, Michael Woolcock argues that an evolving approach known as Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) could be used to answer the second question. PDIA offers a coherent basis on which to distinguish between different types of development problems, and to help craft a more appropriate match between types of problems and types of solutions. It works by gathering real time input from many actors on the ground in order to continually inform the adaptive planning process.

Work along these lines has already been conducted in the fragile states of Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone, where teams of local researchers have been actively engaged in documenting changes in the nature and extent of conflict as a basis for contributing to a national policy dialogue. Policy debate about these issues would otherwise largely be conducted on an anecdotal basis, but using local researchers to generate local knowledge using local indicators has been central to identifying forms and source of local variation, in crafting a credible basis for reforms, and to enhancing the legitimacy of international actors, whose role in these matters has been to facilitate rather than pre-determine what might be done.

This paper was featured on the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) website today. You can view the article here. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

BSC Paper wins ASA award

We are proud to announce that Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation co-authored by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock won the Faculty Article Award from the Sociology of Development Section of the American Sociological Association (ASA). The award ceremony was held in San Francisco on August 16, 2014. This seminal paper is the foundation of the Building State Capability (BSC) program and the precursor to PDIA. For more information, please read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) or watch our Vimeo Channel.

This is PFM

The acronym PFM stands for Public Financial Management: But what does public financial management really mean?

Matt Andrews, Marco Cangiano, Neil Cole, Paolo de Renzio, Philipp Krause, and Renaud Seligmann have published a new paper on demystifying the concept of public financial management (PFM), drawing on their experiences as specialists in different contexts and with different views (from academia, the multilateral and bilateral development agencies, think tanks, government, and civil society). This paper provides an entry point for discussion on the constituent elements of PFM systems, how and why PFM reforms have emerged, and points to gaps for future attention. You can read it here.