Complexity is Simple with PDIA

Guest blog written by Ahmad Aljazaeri

After many years working in the for-profit private sector, I moved about two years ago into a government-owned company that was set up several year ago to be an execution arm for what used to be called the Ministry of Labor. This company grew to be a huge enabler for the transformation plans for that ministry and several other government entities and even some private companies. After being on the receiving end of public policy, I am now ever closer to influencing and even participating in drafting policies. Having been outside my comfort zone, I thought that nothing would be better than going back to school to learn how to better deal with the new challenges in front of me. I went through several options, but IPP grabbed my attention with its structure and scope. I thought this would be a good start for me to understand policy making and implementation and I honestly thought there would be a lot of theory. I didn’t mind that, but I was very interested in learning what it would take to succeed in the implementation of those policies. By that time, I have already worked on a couple of small policies that saw the light and were implemented successfully, but I wanted to tackle bigger problems and I needed to be well-equipped.


I had some concerns about the program being completely online, but I also knew that this could work although 20 weeks seemed a very long time for a training course. After the second week, I was completely convinced that this set up was going to be way better than a condensed 2-week course as it allows participant to fully digest the content and put what they have learned into real action. The course exceeded my expectations in every measure imagined and I would certainly like to see more of such courses in all disciplines.

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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!

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Why do public policies fail? Categorizing the challenges

written by Matt Andrews

Governments—and other public policy organizations—undertake many different tasks, implementing a diverse set of policies and projects. Many of these policies and projects are not considered successful. My recent blog post noted that failure occurs more often than anyone would likely consider optimal.

There are many reasons for policy failure, and my own research on this topic is well underway: I have been analyzing a sample of fifty case studies of policy failures to identify reasons for failure and will be discussing findings in a working paper coming soon.  As I work, I am always trying to learn from the thoughts and analysis of others, and to find good teaching materials to use in engaging executives on the topic (materials that are easy to read, and offer pragmatic views that have some evidentiary backing in the broader literature).

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PMRDF: an Innovative State Capability Experiment in India

written by Salimah Samji.

Anyone who has ever worked in India knows how hard it is to implement programs. The sheer size of the country makes it impossible for anyone but the government, who is the only one with infrastructure and reach, to provide public services to its citizens. Currently, every district administers typically 100+ development schemes. Each scheme has its own rules, regulations, reporting, and funding. Districts are continuously burdened with new schemes and more work without the requisite resources. They are often understaffed and have few (if any) skilled functionaries to be able to do their job. The reality is that 90% of the time is spent on routine day-to-day management leaving no time for strategic planning or experimentation.

To address the capacity and implementation gaps in backward districts which are isolated and less developed, the Ministry of Rural Development launched the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) in 2012. The aim of the fellowship was to provide catalytic support to the district administration to help improve the delivery of programs and to develop a cadre of committed development professionals. The eligibility criteria was a minimum of a four-year degree from a recognized university. The fellows were to work for 2-3 years under the supervision of the District Collector, and paid INR 75,000 ($1,210) per month with a 10% increment each year subject to performance. That is a very generous amount. The rationale was to attract younger people who were passionate about development and willing to go to remote areas, but could not afford the low wages. In essence this was a way to bring in new blood into the system.

816 applicants were shortlisted from a total of 8,560 applicants for a group discussion and a personal interview. 156 fellows were selected to work across 82 districts in 9 states. Each state decided on the placement of fellows with 1-3 per district. Currently there are 137 fellows from the first batch and a second batch has just been selected. For more details see the TEDx talk.

Some of the challenges faced during the implementation of the 2012-13 PMRDFs include:
  • Building the trust of the States/District Collectors: When the program was initially announced, it was viewed suspiciously by some (i.e. was the center sending monitors to the states/districts?). Many meetings were held to explain and clarify the objectives of the program and to bring the states on board.
  • Ineffective use of the fellows: Depending on the District Collector, some fellows were welcomed and given a lot of responsibility and authority to experiment, while some others were used as glorified executive assistants – which is also understandable given the lack of human resources at the district level.
  • Lack of authority to issue instructions or to sanction funds: The fellows are not part of the government bureaucracy and therefore have no signing authority and cannot issue orders to lower level functionaries. As a result, they need to go to the District Collector with all those requests leading to time delays and inefficiencies. To address this, the state of Andhra Pradesh has delegated a budget head specifically for the fellows.
  • High monthly salary is attracting applicants who are not necessarily passionate about development: This has been an unintended consequence and they have tried to be more mindful in the interviews for the 2nd batch of fellows.
  • What happens after the fellows leave? One criticism is that they are building temporary capacity. To address this, the second batch will be offered one year of public service after their fellowship. However, this issue remains a challenge.
Here are some testimonies of the fellows, for more read their profile book or visit their blog.
  • “I still remember an incident from my initial days, when a village welcomed and garlanded me saying: We are receiving our first government official in our village after Independence.
  • “… working with the field staff in implementation of these schemes was not always easy. My efforts at convincing them and the higher authorities did not yield fruit every time. The convergence of different schemes has also been a challenge as each scheme has different criteria for beneficiary selection and process of implementation. However, struggling with these issues every day helped me understand the minutest details of these schemes and the complexities involved in the development sector.”
  • “This last one year as a PMRDF has helped me develop both personally and professionally. It has given me a chance to work and interact with people at every level of the hierarchy, starting with the panchayat secretary and going up to state officials.”
  • “The last one year has been a period of immense pleasure, satisfaction, frustration, learning and un-learning … There were difficulties: sluggishness, winning the trust of various actors and bringing them onto common platform to get the ball rolling, getting bogged down with too many operational formalities needing to continuously establish yourself within the system. I learnt that things will happen if there is strong will. I learnt of a number of unsung heroes who keep things going—unappreciated and unrecognized—but making a difference each day with their integrity.” This comment is a great illustration of Matt Andrew’s multi-agent leadership paper, Who really Leads Development?

The PMRDF is a work in progress with a lot of learning, iterating and adaptation. There are no easy solutions when you are working on implementation intensive programs. It will be interesting to see what other lessons are learned from this dynamic experiment of trying to solve capacity issues at the last mile of service delivery.

BSC Video 10: Specifying the Design Space

The design space of actual development projects is complex, granular, and nuanced. In this video, Lant Pritchett, uses a simple example of a design space for teacher training to illustrate this point. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read It’s All About MeE: Using Structured Experiential Learning (‘e’) to Crawl the Design Space.

BSC Video 5: Typology of Tasks by Capability Intensity needed for Implementation

It is important when thinking about building state capability, to first ask, what is the “type of problem” you are trying to solve? In this video, Lant Pritchett, provides a framework to determine the capability required for implementing development projects. He begins by asking whether your task is transaction intensive, followed by whether it is locally discretionary, to better understand if the nature of the task is logistics or implementation intensive. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

BSC Video 4: Capability for Policy Implementation

Policy implementation requires agents of organizations who are responsible for implementation, to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right place. In this video, Lant Pritchett, uses an example of delivering the mail and issuing driver’s licenses to illustrate this point. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more about the examples used in this video, read Letter Grading Government Efficiency, and Obtaining a Drivers License in India: An Experimental Approach to Studying Corruption.