Can PDIA become a regular part of how a government works?

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

Recently I have been engaging with a government in a middle-income country which is using PDIA methods to tackle some of their thorniest public problems. As one would expect there have been successes and failures, and lots of learning. But in addition to this, leaders in the government want to ‘embed’ PDIA permanently into the way their government works. This raises some interesting questions for PDIA – can the methodology be institutionalised as part of the way a government works? If so, what does this look like? And what is required to make that successful and sustainable?

The government has decided that it wants to embrace more innovative methods of getting things done, and governments through the ages have had similar ambitions. There has been a recognition that existing ways of working leave some problems unsolved, and a good place to start is to understand why this might be.

Governments by their nature function in routines. These are established pathways which, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the government’s capability, serve a range of functions in maintaining the operations of the state. These functions are well established but can also change, adapting to new conditions and new social or economic needs through shifts in policy, legislation, new services and new ways of working. As such governments can be understood as complex adaptive eco-systems which are themselves embedded in and interacting with a larger complex adaptive system: wider society.

As functioning (or dysfunctioning) systems, governments get an awful lot of things done. To borrow an analogy used by Matt Andrews, the amount of coordination it takes to make a streetlight switch on at a specific time each day is actually quite extraordinary. But as systems whose configuration is a response to and reflection of their societal context, governments are by their nature unable to solve every problem through their regular operation. Some problems are complex, and/or emergent, and require different types of know-how to solve. Some of these problems may arise directly because the machine of the state is configured in such a way as to neglect, exacerbate or even cause that particular issue. Think of a robot vacuum cleaner: they are pretty smart these days, programmed to trundle around your house hoovering the floor space and capturing a lot of dirt. When it’s done the floor looks pretty clean, but anyone with a Roomba knows that it can’t catch dirt gathering in the hard to reach corners, and it may have even pushed extra dirt into some of those corners. Getting into those nooks and crannies requires something different – probably a human, using a different tool.

Continue reading Can PDIA become a regular part of how a government works?

Working with local governments to improve service delivery in Indonesia

Guest blog written by Karrie McLaughlin

Melayani project in Indonesia

When Indonesia decentralized just over 20 years ago, it did so partly on the promise that bringing services closer to citizens would help to improve them. However, at the same moment that responsibility for the provision of basic public services was shifting to local governments, the nature of those service delivery challenges was itself shifting from improving availability of services to improving access and quality. The logistical tasks of constructing clinic and school buildings and hiring nurses and teachers had largely been completed, and districts are now left looking toward the top of the tree at more difficult problems. This blog examines the MELAYANI – Untangling Problems in Improving Basic Services program to better understand the issues local governments face in dealing with more demanding service delivery challenges, and how they can better be supported in doing so.

Importantly, there is a common element to these more difficult problems—they are complex, context-specific and cannot be solved by one-size-fits-all prescriptions from the central government. The root causes of these problems are multi-faceted and frequently vary from one location to another. As such, they require district governments to play a more active role in identifying, understanding and responding to them.

MELAYANI addressed these challenges by working with local governments to solve service delivery problems of their choice, while testing scalable capacity development approaches and learning about locally-led change. Experiences in the three locations (Bojonegoro, East Java; Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan; and Belu, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT)) are presented in this video.

MELAYANI supported local governments to select the problems that they felt were most important, helping to ensure that they were locally salient. By anchoring analysis in a key issue, rather than a particular sector, it allowed both for more actors to be involved and for the identification and mobilization of new resources. In addition, by providing support to local governments to better understand citizen problems, it provided clearer arguments for policy stability and commitment.

Continue reading Working with local governments to improve service delivery in Indonesia

Using the PDIA Toolkit to Help a Nonprofit in Philadelphia

Guest blog written by Jamison Hicks

The PDIA toolkit has yet again proven to be both useful and effective in providing organizations with the structural means to continually monitor and evaluate programmatic and organizational success. From a usage perspective, even though the toolkit was created in the US, the majority of PDIA blog posts on implementation seemed to be focused on out-of-country nations. With this simple observation, I thought it right to take advantage of the opportunity to implement the toolkit for a nonprofit organization in the US, namely, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before I get too far ahead of myself, I think it is important to briefly note how I came to learn about PDIA since I am not a conventional student of the program. While interning at World Vision, the Executive Advisor on Fragile States and my personal mentor Jonathan Papoulidis, introduced me to the toolkit. By reading the free online textbook and watching many videos, I was able to gain a sufficient grasp of the concepts and in turn convert theory to an “empiric”.

One Day At A Time (ODAAT), the nonprofit organization where I implemented the toolkit focuses on substance addiction and homelessness in North Philadelphia. This region has some of the highest rates of opioid use and homelessness in the US. The first step taken was gathering all program or team supervisors into one room to diagnose problems using the Fishbone Diagram. One lesson learned; understanding the language of the organization was a necessity. Terms and questions used were not easily understood by the organization. This resulted in having to continuously adjust the approach.

For example, when trying to figure out the overarching problem the community faced, and the causes of those problems, I found it extremely helpful to use the power of stories. To explain the main problems and their causes, I offered the example of murder. Generally, individuals do not murder others without reason. The motive behind the individual’s actions could be childhood traumatic experiences, pain, loneliness, etc. This analogy helped the organization draw comparisons between the example and the initial question asked. Their main or overarching problem was equated to the hypothetical murder, and their related causes were the equivalents to the reasons behind “said” murder. Stories increased the fluidity and effectiveness of the Fishbone Diagram.

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COVID-19: Planning for Tomorrow’s Problems Today

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

When he started his blog series on crisis leadership on these pages, Matt Andrews asked: can public leaders navigate high winds and big waves in little boats? We could add to that question: how do you build the boat when you are already at sea and the storm is raging?

For most governments, the mechanisms to deal with this crisis did not exist, and existing ones were not designed for it. As a result, much of the response is being improvised in the middle of a hurricane, and more recent blog posts on  Liberia and Bahrain have explored this.

This challenge gives rise to a very common pattern: crisis responders will focus on the problems that have to be solved right now. It is a natural way to go about the job; prioritise what is urgent and solve the problem, then move on to the next. But anyone will familiar with the so-called Eisenhower matrix (‘Urgent versus Important’ 2×2 shown below) will know that we ignore ‘important but not urgent’ issues at our peril.

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Source: Vinita Bansal’s excellent Techtello article on ‘How to  Prioritise and  Master Productivity’

The current crisis is no different, and this post is dedicated to the problems which will become critical in the next few weeks and months as the crisis evolves, and which must be planned for (those in quadrant 2 of the matrix and need to be scheduled for action through strategic thinking  NOW). Leaders need to make sure they put in place resources to tackle these ‘tomorrow problems’.

COVID-19 is impacting every sector. But for simplicity’s sake, I am going to focus on the two main, broad dimensions of the crisis: the medical (or public health) side in this blog post, and the economic side in the next post. These two dimensions are intimately connected – what happens in one, including the policies implemented, profoundly affects the other. It’s vital to consider how these interdependencies will play out as the crisis evolves, and some countries are doing that already. But forward planning will be especially important in developing and transitional countries which have yet to bear the full brunt of the pandemic. Continue reading COVID-19: Planning for Tomorrow’s Problems Today

Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

written by Matt Andrews

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

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This is the second of four blogs addressing questions about political engagement in crisis response organization. The questions are: Who are political  leaders and what roles do they play in crises?  How do political leaders commonly structure their roles? How can political leaders structure their roles more effectively? I will offer some thoughts on the second of these questions here and, as usual, ask questions for you to reflect on.

How do political leaders commonly structure their roles in crisis?

Let’s start with recognizing that political leaders differ in a myriad of ways, and  political  leaders organize themselves quite differently in response to crises as well (as shown in studies like this one from Christensen et al). Different structures often  reflect different personalities, political cultures, available tools, and more.

Even with the differences, some fairly commonly observed ways politicians respond to crises. One of these ‘common responses’ pertains to how they organize their response: Many politicians centralize and try to move towards a command and control deciding and operating mode.

This is the core observation of Paul ‘t Hart, Uriel Rosenthal and Alexander Kouzmin in their 1993 classic: “One of the more enduring ideas about governmental response to crisis is the expectation that government decision making becomes highly centralized.” Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 19: How do political leaders commonly structure their roles?

Why I Almost Left Local Government (and Why I Decided to Stay)

Guest blog written by Maggie Jones

Public sector work is not for the faint at heart.  Over a 48-hour period, you may experience a rollercoaster of emotions including:

  • Inspiring others about why they should pursue a career in local government
  • Shutting the office down early due to a citizen threat
  • Receiving one of your best performance appraisals of your career
  • Regrettable HR decisions
  • Making a policy change that positively impacts your work and those you serve
  • Being reprimanded for making said policy change
  • Power struggles
  • “We’ve always done it this way”

Swiss Army KnifeFor much of my career in public service, I’ve been faced with angry constituents, toxic work environments, bad bosses, mean girls (and guys), and meetings that should have been emails.  I’ve been bullied, threatened, gaslighted, and incredibly uncomfortable.  There are days when you start to see the lotus coming up through the mud and then there are days when you’re hiding your favorite blog posts and articles from Medium and Fast Company under your desk like contraband.

I’ve always been a bit of a Swiss Army knife: multi-tool (multi-job), reliable, practical, adaptable.  But that doesn’t mean I’ve always been equipped to handle life in local government.  Sometimes the Swiss Army knife doesn’t cut it and you need something else.

Over the years I had three amazing supervisors, one who later became a wonderful mentor and friend. Robert Sturns taught me how to manage up, navigate the ever-changing political landscape, and ask the right questions at the right time.  He also taught me how to be resilient, that leadership comes at all levels, and that kindness always wins.  Rob gave me the freedom and support to try new things, even if it meant failing (forward).  Even as an A-Team of three, our little division’s workflow produced as much (if not more) than an entire high-performing department, which can certainly be attributed to Rob’s coaching leadership style and the diversity of our team’s skills and talents.  Reflecting on this time with the A-Team has brought me back to life on the toughest of days and has sparked me to lead my own team in a way that I hope inspires them, too.

Eventually my career track moved me away from that job and I found myself in a series of situations that challenged my ethics as well as my heart.  “We’ve always done it this way” was king, “change” was a bad word, asking questions was frowned upon, and we weren’t getting the desired results at cost to those were were claiming to serve.

And then, in a series of events, everything changed. Continue reading Why I Almost Left Local Government (and Why I Decided to Stay)

The Mozambique School Lunch Initiative

Guest blog written by Cara Myers

Cara Myers is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Mozambique School Lunch Initiative (MSLI).  She learned about the PDIA approach by taking two courses at the Harvard Kennedy School as part of her Master’s in Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID) program. She then began applying more of the concepts directly with the MSLI team. This is her PDIA story.

It was March of 2016 and the rains had completely failed for a second year in southern Mozambique. Farming families had no crops. Children were missing school to dig up river roots to eat. Teachers were sending students home because they were “too hungry to learn anything.” Even in normal years, child malnutrition and poor school participation are major issues in Mozambique. This is one of those big, complex problems that is caused by a myriad of interrelated causes and sub-causes that are difficult to disentangle and prioritize.

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So there we were, myself, Talvina Ualane and Roberto Mutisse, all of us former colleagues who had worked together for a disaster relief nongovernmental organization in Mozambique in the past and felt deeply motivated to do something to help people affected by this crisis. But, where did we even begin?

We started with what we could do. This is one of the key aspects of the triple-A framework used in PDIA, which stresses that the space for change must include three key factors: authority, acceptance, and ability. PDIA also emphasizes moving to action quickly rather than taking a long time to try and plan everything out before starting to work. By deconstructing the problem into small, manageable bits, it creates points of entry whereby you can start addressing one of the causes or sub-causes of the problem and build the capacity to do more from there.

Continue reading The Mozambique School Lunch Initiative

The problem with ‘best practice’: using PDIA to find solutions for Indonesian education

Guest blog by Mark Heyward

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Much is made these days of doing development differently, of adaptive programming, and thinking and working politically. Devpolicy Blog featured a series of articles on this topic in September 2018. But do these approaches work?

One program that has embraced adaptive programming is Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI). The program, which began in 2016, is a partnership between the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture. It is being implemented by Palladium. INOVASI has adopted the problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) approach to help Indonesian government partners find out what works to improve learning outcomes.

Continue reading The problem with ‘best practice’: using PDIA to find solutions for Indonesian education

Premature load bearing: a fresh look at the WDR 2011

Guest blog written by Paul von Chamier

In 2011 the World Development Report shed some light on the extent of the challenges that drive premature load bearing, a concept discussed in earlier BSC blog posts. Among hundreds of figures presented in the Report was a simple table that showed how long it should take for so-called fragile countries to achieve a “decent”  level of governance. To define that “decent” level the author, Lant Pritchett, used the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators and assessed how many years it would take until fragile countries hit the threshold of governance quality of the top 40 percent of the best performing countries, this was a score of 6 on the scale of 0-10.[i] The results of the exercise were somber:

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The results suggest that more robust leadership will be instrumental if those countries are to achieve a satisfactory level of governance. If fragile countries were to continue at their current average pace they will not pass the threshold in any foreseeable future. Even in a very optimistic scenario, in which the fragile countries would all at once start improving their institutions at the pace of 20 best performing countries (the likes of Singapore, Taiwan, Denmark, and Canada), it would still take three decades to accomplish. This is the case even though that threshold only denotes a decent level of governance (i.e. not even the level that people in the most developed countries enjoy). Progress, even when rapid, takes place at a very slow, organic pace and even when strong leadership is present it might take a whole generation to bear fruit. 

Continue reading Premature load bearing: a fresh look at the WDR 2011

Tackling the problem of basic education in remote areas of Indonesia

Guest blog written by Annisaa Rachmawati, Agusti Padmanisa, Yossy Rachmatillah, and Senza Arsendy.

This is a team of four development practitioners working for an education program in Indonesia, INOVASI, that aims to find out ‘what works’ (and conversely what does not work) to improve student learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy in basic education. They are a multidisciplinary team of officers working in communications, program implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and operations unit. They successfully completed the 15-week Practice of PDIA online course that ended in May 2019. This is their story.

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The term PDIA is something that our team is familiar with, in fact it’s a buzzword we hear everyday at work. Our project uses PDIA as its underlying approach, yet there seems to be different interpretations and debates around how it should be translated into program implementation. Having observed this notion for a while, we decided to enroll in PDIA Online Course to learn rigorously about the approach. We were convinced that this course will equip us with practical knowledge to actually do what we preach in our project.

There are four principles which encompasses PDIA. First, we need to ensure that our intervention is “problem driven” instead of solutions driven. Second, we need to engage relevant stakeholders and create environment which allows for “authorization of positive deviance”. Third, we need to foster experiential learning through “iteration and adaptation”. Last, we “scale through diffusion” successful interventions for reform to be sustainable.

The problem we are trying to tackle is “early grade students in remote areas in Indonesia have difficulties learning to read”, a persisting issue our country has been struggling for decades despite the many efforts collectively put by the government, donor programs, and education practitioners. Policies and best practices (either locally nominated or externally imported) seem to be successful in a short period of time, deceiving us into thinking that we might have solved this problem for good. Not long after specific project or intervention is completed, the same problem reoccurred – leading us right back into capability traps. (Isomorphic mimicry alert!)

Continue reading Tackling the problem of basic education in remote areas of Indonesia