The 5 M’s of Development: Muddling matters (Part 2 of 5)

written by Matt Andrews

As I reflect on how change happens in development, 5 themes come to mind. I wrote about moments yesterday. Today I will discuss the second one: muddling matters. What I mean is that developing countries need to muddle through if they want to improve governance; there are no quick answers to the complex challenge of governance reform.

However, I don’t mean that countries should be muddled. Muddling through–or purposive muddling as I like to call it–is an active, intentional and focused process that helps countries find and fit solutions that work in their context. I also don’t mean to say that muddling ‘should’ be part of a successful reform process. My research shows that muddling ‘is’ part of successful reform. There is ample evidence that successful change comes about through experimentation with multiple reform options, with an emphasis on solving problems, and a whole lot of iteration and learning. I’ve written a few papers in this regard and will continue to write more.

Many people in the development community tell me that they agree with the idea of muddling (conceptually), but don’t see how it can be done in developing countries or in governments where politicians are looking for solutions and want the solutions ‘yesterday.’ I keep telling these people, that purposive muddling is common, and necessary, and instead of saying ‘it isn’t possible’ we should be exploring the strategies others have adopted to make it possible (and to make it part of the DNA of some organizations).

Muddling

Image reproduced from a blog on writing and inspiration:  http://inkspirationalmessages.com/2012/02/10371/

The 5 M’s of Development: Moments matter (Part 1 of 5)

written by Matt Andrews

As I reflect on how change happens in development, 5 themes come to mind. The first is simple, but is one of the most important observations I continually make when observing successful change that fosters better government and development results: Moments matter.

‘Change events’ happen when contexts become ready for change. That is, when:

  • there is disruption that forces people to accept change,
  • incumbent structures are being questioned,
  • there are viable alternatives that local people are willing to try, and
  • the weight of agency shifts from the old and discredited ways to a search for new ways (that may be untested but promise better solutions to pressing problems).

Interestingly, I find that these moments are not always a product of lucky timing. In fact, I commonly see years of activity and engagement in advance of any ‘moment’ that seems to spawn change. Understanding the moment requires going back in time five or ten years (or longer) and learning about how coalitions were emerging, drawing attention to problems, and experimenting with new ways of doing things. These activities are often at the margin of the story until ‘the moment’ arrives… But without them there would probably have not been a moment at all.

The bottom line is that we should spend more time preparing for moments than we currently do. Moments of readiness matter more than the development solutions we try to stuff into contexts that are not ready for change.

BSC Video 12: Maintaining your Authorizing Environment

Maintaining your support through a change process is often a challenging task which requires time and effort. In this video, Matt Andrews, explains how one does not only have to maintain the initial authorization, but also expand the number of actors who provide authorization, thus increasing the legitimacy of the project or reform. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and Limits of Institutional Reform.

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.

PDIA and Obamacare

written by Matt Andrews

Governments often face unenviable tasks that border on the impossible, given particularly thorny political and administrative complexities. Commentators typically deride governments when they fail in their initial attempts to address such tasks. They pen new laws that are less than many had hoped for, and call public agencies inefficient (or worse) when new roll-out mechanisms go slowly or fall apart altogether. Recent experience with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in the United States is an obvious case in point. No one seems to have an appetite for the struggles government is enduring as it tries to implement this law. We want new websites that perform miracles the first time around, and insurance reforms that solve coverage problems without rocking too many boats. The more we see government muddling in ACA execution the more we criticize it and question the President’s leadership.

This criticism reflects a view on how governments should work that is common in the world of international development, where I do most of my work. Such view reflects a belief in what I call solution and leader driven change (sldc), which holds that policy and reform solutions will work ‘if they are well planned and implemented with strong leadership from the top’. When development initiatives run into trouble, in places as diverse as Argentina, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, sldc believers typically bemoan the lack of leadership and the uselessness of government. They seem to feel that a leader should be able to do all things when armed with a good solution. Any sign of muddling in the process of making or executing change is a sign of a bad solution, weak leadership, or a flailing administration. Success comes from having the right solution at the start and just executing it properly.

This view is extremely problematic. I say this so emphatically because I find exactly the opposite storyline in most of my research examining successful government policies and reforms. The experiences I look at are diverse, ranging from civil rights reform in the United States to growth policies in South Korea and decentralization in Rwanda. Even though these experiences vary a lot, they all involved policy changes that most commentators would call successful—manifesting in more equitable service access, improved economic performance, better public sector performance, and more. I find more commonalities across the cases as well, related to the way they emerged.

Primarily, evidence suggests that these successes seldom (if ever) came about through a clean process where a leader introduced a solution and just forced implementation by edict. Rather, change was spurred by the recognition (by a group of agents) that a problem existed that warranted change; but no one knew exactly what to do. Solutions emerged over time, through many iterative experiments that provided lessons about what could be done and allowed reformers to build support and capability to do more. I call such experimentation ‘purposive muddling’ and see it fitting into an overall process of problem driven iterative adaptation (pdia) that seems more likely to characterize successful change than solution and leader driven change.

I even see purposive muddling and pdia in the story of NASA’s successful lunar missions, which some media outlets portray as a solution and leader driven change initiative (where technical experts simply did what President Kennedy told them to). In fact, the mission involved many agents (and two presidents) and emerged over a number of years; through experimentation that often looked like it was delivering more failure than success. The experimentation looked like purposive muddling that often required more budget than had been provided and required creative administrative solutions that would probably be questioned today. It spawned sad deaths on the launch pad and the messy dismissal of a legendary administrator, but also ultimately led to a number of humans doing the impossible and stepping on the lunar surface.

I believe that governments are still capable of doing great (and impossible) things, and finding solutions to our most complex problems and challenges—like those evident in the health care domain. But they will never do this in a clean, solution driven process that many commentators seem to believe in. Complex policy changes and reforms like those associated with the Affordable Care Act demand messy processes of purposive muddling. These processes can deliver great results if there is space to learn and iterate (which I wonder about with health reform in the USA). We should be grateful whenever political and administrative leaders in government recognize this, and continue to muddle despite the derision their muddling attracts. The governments we should really deride are those that don’t muddle, because they are probably side stepping the complex and demanding problems their citizens face.

This blog post also appeared in the Washington Monthly.

BSC Video 9: Constructing Problems to Drive Change

Problems are key to driving change. In this video, Matt Andrews, uses two examples about HIV in Pakistan, to illustrate how constructing local problems using data can be used to mobilize stakeholders to search for solutions that ultimately drive change. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation and Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).

BSC Video 8: What is PDIA?

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) is an approach we have developed to help escape capability traps. PDIA rests on four core principles:

  • Local Solutions for Local Problems: Transitioning from promoting solutions (pre-determined by external experts) to allowing the local nomination and articulation of concrete problems to be solved.
  • Pushing Problem Driven Positive Deviance: Creating environments within and across organizations that encourage experimentation and positive deviance, accompanied by enhanced accountability for performance in problem solving.
  • Try, Learn, Iterate, Adapt: Promoting active experiential (and experimental) learning with evidence-driven feedback built into regular management and project decision making, in ways that allow for real-time adaptation.
  • Scale through Diffusion: Engaging champions across sectors and organizations who ensure reforms are viable, legitimate and relevant.

In this video, Lant Pritchett, provides an overview of PDIA core principles: problem solving; authorizing positive deviation; iterating and adapting; and scaling practices through diffusion. We believe that success builds institutions and not vice versa. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Looking Like a State: Techniques of Persistent Failure in State Capability for Implementation and Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).

BSC Video 7: Understanding your Authorizing Environment

In the systems we operate within, who identifies problems? who identifies solutions? and how do these people mobilize the ones who have power and authority?  In our research we find that leadership is about multi-agent groups and not single-agent autocrats.

In this video, Matt Andrews, contrasts examples of anti-corruption reforms in Malawi and Botswana to illustrate that authority is cultivated, built in groups, and not around individuals. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Who Really Leads Development? and Limits of Institutional Reform.

BSC Video 6: Understanding your Eco-system

The process of building state capability involves people, who are the ultimate complex phenomena; embedded within organizations, which are complex; and organizations are embedded in rules systems (e.g. institutions, cultures, norms), which are themselves complex. In this video, Michael Woolcock, highlights the fact that reforms do not take place in a vacuum. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, read Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and Limits of Institutional Reform.

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.