An unexpected journey: ‘One fish in your hand is worth more than two in the river’

Guest blog by Raphaël Kenigsberg

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Integrate the Millennial generation into strategic decision-making and implementation

During the Covid-19 crazy crisis, I had a dream, shared by many: what would the world look like after this unexpected pandemic? Our landmarks were missing, and adaptation became key. With the support of hundred engaged members of the think tank I am running, we designed a set of 32 ambitions imagining youth expectations for a better future. For two months, during the first general lockdown, daily and after work, we decided to gather and organize ideas with the hope of being heard by policymakers. We designed a 150-page report in French and in English. The main goal of this report was to convince policymakers that youth should be included into designing and implementing public policies. We organized an influence communication directed towards the French President, all members of government, National Assembly, Senate, embassies, European Commission and Parliament, international organizations, and media.

Continue reading An unexpected journey: ‘One fish in your hand is worth more than two in the river’

Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

written by Matt Andrews

There are many views on what constitutes success and failure in public policy implementation. I have been chewing on these a lot over the last couple of years as I try to make sense of the challenges of implementation and of knowing when implementation is going well or not.

Here are some approaches I find useful in this work.

First, a large literature on project success is relevant in this discussionbecause many public policies are implemented through project-like processes (with some studies even referring to the ‘projectization‘ of various policy domains, especially in international development). The project management literature tends to emphasize different types of ‘success’ in the implementation process (if you want to read more detail,  I advise this article on the topic by Paul Bannerman):

(i) Process or project management success: the immediate performance of a project against its main design parameters—schedule (time), budget (cost), scope, and quality.

(ii) Product success: the extent to which a project delivered promised ‘products’, and if those products were used and considered useful by intended users (or beneficiaries).

(iii) Business or Strategy (or impact) success:  whether a project solved the particular problem that warranted it in the first place, and—even more expansively—if the project better positions the community  affected to address future problems or take future opportunities and benefits.

Another large literature on policy implementation offers related but also different ideas about ‘success’. A key article in this literature (by Bovens, ’t Hart and Peters 2001, which I cite below for those with interest) refers to two key dimensions of success: Continue reading Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

Finding the Fringes of Formality: Organizational Capability in Street-Level Bureaucracies in Brazil

Guest blog written by Susana Cordeiro Guerra

Why is it that, despite the abundant resources invested and the largely favorable macroeconomic conditions that have prevailed until recently, middle-income countries have been unable to systematically deliver quality basic services, such as education and safety, to their citizens? Despite a wide variety of attempts to improve these crucial public services, results have failed to meet expectations.

Efforts to build state capabilities have often been influenced by the practice of the developed countries, traditionally especially the large Weberian bureaucracy model but increasingly in recent years models emphasizing less formal or strict approaches to bureaucratic performance and service delivery, such as those using the private sector as a rubric. Developing countries have applied various frameworks for improving service delivery and bureaucratic reform over the last 50 years – and yet there has been little to no significant convergence to developed country service provision levels (Pritchett 2013).

This is more than a puzzle. It has been a cause for revolt. Over the past few years, citizens have repeatedly risen in protest across the globe – notably in Brazil – to demand better service delivery and more efficient and fair government. What these protests highlight is actually a fundamental crisis of the state. If states cannot deliver better quality services in light of rising wealth, education, and expectations, can they sustain legitimacy?

This problem therefore calls for renewed scholarly and policy attention to how states can better perform these crucial functions, and thus to the performance of state bureaucracies. It also calls for novel approaches to how to resolve this problem. This dissertation project takes up this call by focusing attention on the too often neglected role of organizational performance and its role in improved service delivery by state bureaucracies. In particular, I focus on the under-investigated problems of organizational capability, its causes, and its relationship to positive organizational outputs in the context of “middle capability” countries.

I investigate the challenge of improving state capability by looking closely at the dynamics of Brazil, a paradigmatic and large middle-income country that has struggled with this very set of problems for a number of decades. In particular, I examine why there is variation in reform implementation in front-line bureaucratic units in three different sectors: education, policing and industrial policy. These sectors represent three different types of street-level (non-logistical) bureaucracies in a state of “middle capability” like Brazil. I chose case studies in each sector that have been deemed successes in reform implementation, but that actually exhibited tremendous variation in the management of the front-line service delivery units.

My question is: Why do some schools, police pacification units and innovation institutes do better than others? My hypothesis is that bureaucratic behavior is important to explaining this.

To research the question, I have drawn on semi-structured surveys, with both open- and close-ended questions to examine the behavioral patterns of managers (police commanders, school principals and innovation institute directors) of these front-line units. Having examined nearly 160 units across three sectors, I have found that purely structural explanations cannot account for this variation. For instance, I found units in the least likely places that were being very well managed while others in favorable settings that were not well managed.

So what accounts for this variation? I argue that an important part of this success under these conditions is related to how bureaucrats in middle management approach their responsibilities, and especially how they deal with fulfilling their responsibilities in light of the rules and protocols under which they operate. In particular, I hypothesize and have found evidence that the most successful are the middle-level bureaucrats who share a particular behavioral profile – a profile I refer to as operating “at the fringes of formality.”

The fringes of formality behavioral profile entails three main characteristics: middle-level agents who exhibit initiative, spend time on strategic rather than administrative or tactical functions and who operate in a particular way in the bureaucracy, husbanding and spending bureaucratic capital in a way that is innovative and results-oriented, but respects the rules and the interests of the organization. This differentiates such behavior both from model Weberian bureaucrats who strictly follow rules and protocols but also from jeitinho bureaucrats who simply seek convenient workarounds without reference to the interests of the larger organization or rules.

What do these three characteristics that describe the fringes of formality behavior mean in practice? Middle-level agents who have initiative show a strong sense of de facto autonomy and are energetic in the pursuit of solutions to organizational challenges within their appropriate sphere in the bureaucracy. Middle-level agents who spend their time largely on strategic functions are mostly involved in planning and abstract thinking, as opposed to administrative and routinized functions. Lastly, agents who are operating at the fringes of formality use their bureaucratic capital in a way that is useful and productive to the organization’s interests but tangential to the rules and protocols rather than strictly following them. In doing so, these agents are able to stretch and create space within rules without breaking them and in a manner that also benefits the organization as a whole.

I have found evidence that this behavior is present in organizations in Brazil, but also that it seems to be associated with positive administrative or intermediate outputs from the relevant level of their organizations. This, in turn, is associated with better organizational performance.

It is important to note that the aim of the project is to explain the variation in reform implementation across front-line administrative units by examining the relationship between behavioral profiles and intermediate organizational outputs. The aim of the project is not to examine whether given bureaucracies or organizational programs and initiatives lead to improved outcomes and overall performance in the sector. Rather, the aim is to identify the kinds of bureaucratic behavior that are associated with better bureaucratic performance in middle capability settings. Thus, the focus is on evaluating what causes bureaucratic competence, not with the evaluating programs themselves. Of course, while good programs are important to good public outcomes, so too bureaucratic competence is essential to effective public service provision.

Ultimately, the dissertation project has found a profile of behavior that seems to be associated with positive organizational outputs. This behavior is not the typical behavior that is commonly understood to be “proper” or “optimal” bureaucratic behavior. It is a behavior that actually somewhat deviates from the norm of what is considered “good” bureaucratic behavior. The upshot is that the behavior that actually works is one that is more bottom-up, more organic, and not the one that seems “the best” from a distance or in the abstract. In other words, there are practices currently being evolved or developed on the ground, within bureaucracies without top-down guidance or management that are working, even if they do not really conform to what is usually understood as best practice. These are the practices that can allow the middle-level manager to free their respective front-line unit of the middle capability trap and move to a more Weberian looking type of bureaucracy in the long run.

Book Review of Serious Whitefella Stuff: When Solutions Became the Problem in Indigenous Affairs

written by Michael Woolcock

It is no secret that a long succession of Australian governments – federal and state, Liberal and Labour – have struggled to implement effective policies in Indigenous communities. Less well known, even among seasoned researchers, is exactly why this has been (and remains) the case. How is it that a public sector otherwise able to administer billion dollar pension funds, to regulate powerful companies, respond admirably to global financial crises, prevent devastating diseases spreading to people, crops and animals, and oversee the safe passage each day of thousands of people flying at high speed in metal tubes miles above the ground, can somehow be unable to provide even basic housing, education and health care to its original inhabitants? Certainly compared to most other countries, the problem is not the absence of well-intentioned policies or inadequate financial resources.

Why does a problem that is literally not rocket science or brain surgery routinely stump governments that by most other measures are ostensibly (or at least relatively) “world class”? Because of a fundamental mismatch between policy and practice – in this case, between the type of problem that engaging with Indigenous communities represents and the dominant way in which large political bureaucracies are predisposed to act. This mismatch is pervasive across the developing world, where an even larger cast of domestic and foreign bureaucracies – with their corresponding array of imperatives, incentives, interests, ideals and capabilities – interact, often in perilous conditions (think Afghanistan). But it is also a problem that hobbles rich countries, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently discovered when his $100m gift to a single disadvantaged school district in New Jersey yielded little more, several years later, than a minor increase in enrollments (or quantity of schooling, not quality). This unhappy tale is documented in Dale Russakoff’s excellent book, The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?

In Australia, perhaps the clearest, most persistent and deeply consequential instance of this policy-practice mismatch is to be found in Indigenous communities. In Serious Whitefella Stuff, Mark Moran and his two collaborators provide, in my view, the most insightful account yet given of how and why this mismatch is both so ubiquitous and so impervious to change. All three authors have spent multiple decades living and working in remote northern communities, as representatives of public agencies and charitable organizations, and their accounts are those that could only be provided by seasoned veterans of such searing experiences. There are no simple narratives here of vice trumping virtue, or trite “cultural explanations” of enduring social problems, but rather measured accounts of how good, decent people on both sides of the giving/receiving relationship have tried to make things work, sometimes because of and oftentimes despite what the prevailing ‘policy’ actually claims to be striving for.

Engaging with Indigenous communities, in Australia and elsewhere, is a quintessential example of what social scientists call a ‘wicked’ problem – by which is meant, of course, not ‘evil’ but deep, enduring complexity. More precisely, wicked problems are those that inherently involve lots of human interaction and considerable discretionary decision-making on the part of front-line implementers (social work is a good example); they often have no known solution up front (or a solution that can only be worked out each time, in each new situation and circumstance), and even when a solution is found it is likely to be resisted, if not actively opposed, by an influential group. Solutions to wicked problems are context specific and highly variable across time, groups and space, even when faithfully implemented and politically supported. So, to take just one instructive example from Serious Whitefella Stuff, broad agreement on a policy to grant ‘property rights’ to Indigenous communities turns out to great in theory but diabolically hard to implement, not least because property rights are desired and possible in some communities, are an utterly alien concept in others (e.g., in those committed to communal ownership of land), are desirable but unworkable in others (e.g., those where overt policies to dismantle communities and then, decades later, reassemble them has completely disrupted a coherent accounting, in both formal records and oral history, of which family lineage has legitimate claim to what land).

Because of these diverse contextual differences, the ‘same’ policy – whether it be in property rights, efforts to revive traditional ceremonies, to centralize or decentralize the layout of communities, to promote school attendance, to address concerns with alcohol  and domestic violence – will likely result in everything from tremendous success to outright failure. Yet the underlying reasons for this variation, and the possible learning opportunities it represents, are mostly lost, filtered instead through a single unifying bureaucratic lens back in capital cities, wherein senior political figures will ultimately decide that the policy was categorically good or bad. But because “something must be done”, each successive government engages in what Moran astutely calls a four-component process of purging, swinging, mimicry and contradiction: that is, of first declaring the previous policy a failure (no matter what it actually achieved), then layering a vacillating series of instruments and objectives upon one another, often by copying “best practices” from abroad, all of which introduces so many “policies” with so many constituent elements that, almost inevitably, irreconcilable contradictions emerge, thus making life permanently frustrating for providers and recipients alike.

The delightful indigenous term for this vexing policy concoction is ‘whitefella stuff’. Could things be otherwise? At one level, the six detailed case studies presented in this book seem frustratingly silent on this point; there is little finger pointing, few searing indictments of overt corruption or mismanagement, and no laundry lists of confident prescriptions for what should be done instead, by whom, now. A lesser book would seek desperately to fill this vacuum; wisely, Moran and his co-authors do not, letting the reader experience the vacuum for what it is, namely part of the problem. In the concluding chapter, Moran outlines the contours of an alternative approach, one slowly gaining traction in the international development community but that surely also has potential resonance in and for Australia.

Serious Whitefella Stuff is ultimately a book about the power of social relationships to engage with wicked problems in ways that are constructive and locally legitimate, even as such relationships themselves are sometimes part of the problem, and even as invoking them may yield priorities and strategies that are administratively alien in Whitefella world. Indeed, successfully brokering across the many “worlds” of Indigenous affairs policy is precisely what constitutes good practice. Respecting the moral integrity of community life, imperfect as it may often be, while simultaneously trying to change it – for example, by providing even minimally adequate housing, education, justice, roads and health care – is the mother of all wicked policy problems. There is no single “policy” solution to such problems; there are only negotiated solutions (plural), and each must be discovered over the course of a long jointly-undertaken voyage. Getting there, as Moran, his team and the Indigenous communities deftly remind us, requires not just “good policy” in the abstract but committed, respectful and creative people who are given the time, space, trust and resources to implement it.

As it happens, this lesson is remarkably similar to that from a rather different voyage, as conveyed in the recent movie ‘The Martian’. When astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) – initially regarded by his colleagues as rather flakey because he was merely an all-purpose “botanist” – is addressing a new intake of wide-eyed NASA recruits, he is asked how he survived for so long, all alone, on a cold, distant, barren planet. He modesty replies: “You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And if you keep solving problems, you get to come home.” Australian governments and everyday citizens alike would do well to bear that seemingly simple principle in mind as they embark upon yet another round of policy deliberations regarding “what should be done”, by whom, to enhance dignity, integrity and opportunity in Indigenous communities. Building implementation systems focused on solving problems, rather than selling solutions, is the frontier issue in public policy, whether in Australia, the United States, or Afghanistan. Or even, it seems, Mars.