PDIA Course: Taking the classroom to the field and the field to the classroom

written by Salimah Samji

When we launched the first PDIA online course in November 2015, we had a burning question: Is it possible to teach PDIA in an online environment?  To answer this question, we essentially PDIA-ed our way forward by learning, iterating, and adapting our online course – and the answer is a resounding YES!

As of the end of last year, 804 development practitioners in 75 countries have successfully completed a version of our free PDIA online course.

PDIA online course poster Dec 2017

Continue reading PDIA Course: Taking the classroom to the field and the field to the classroom

Register now for the free PDIA online course targeted to climate change adaptation!

<update>: Registration is currently closed for this course.

We are delighted to announce that we will be offering The Practice of PDIA: Adapting to Climate Change, from September 24 – December 17, 2017.  Continue reading Register now for the free PDIA online course targeted to climate change adaptation!

Democratizing PDIA knowledge one practitioner at a time

written by Salimah Samji

We now have 569 development practitioners in 64 countries who have successfully completed a version of our free PDIA course.

Since we began our online journey in November 2015, we have learned, iterated and adapted our course three times, essentially PDIA-ing our way forward. More than 80% of each cohort has completed our course evaluation, which has enriched our understanding of how our content was received, as well as helped us identify learning gaps. To address some of these gaps, we went against conventional MOOC wisdom and increased the length of our courses in our last offering, by adding 2 weeks to Principles and 4 weeks to Practice. As we had hoped, this change did improve the learning and did not significantly change the attrition rates or the overall rating of the course. Continue reading Democratizing PDIA knowledge one practitioner at a time

Building State Capability: Review of an important (and practical) new book

Guest blog by Duncan Green

Jetlag is a book reviewer’s best friend. In the bleary small hours in NZ and now Australia, I have been catching up on my reading. The latest was ‘Building BSC coverState Capability’, by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, which builds brilliantly on Matt’s 2013 book and the subsequent work of all 3 authors in trying to find practical ways to help reform state systems in dozens of developing countries (see the BSC website for more). Building State Capability is published by OUP, who agreed to make it available as an Open Access pdf, in part because of the good results with How Change Happens (so you all owe me….).

But jetlag was also poor preparation for the first half of this book, which after a promising start, rapidly gets bogged down in some extraordinarily dense academese. I nearly gave up during the particularly impenetrable chapter 4: sample ‘We are defining capability relative to normative objectives. This is not a reprisal of the “functionalist” approach, in which an organization’s capability would be defined relative to the function it actually served in the overall system.’ Try reading that on two hours’ sleep.

Luckily I stuck with it, because the second half of the book is an excellent (and much more accessible) manual on how to do Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – the approach to institutional reform that lies at the heart of the BSC programme.

Part II starts with an analogy that then runs through the rest of the book. Imagine you want to go from St Louis to Los Angeles. How would you plan your journey? In modern America, it’s easy – car, map, driver and away you go. Now imagine it is 1804, no roads and the West had not even been fully explored. The task is the same (travel from East to West), but the plan would have to be totally different – parties of explorers going out seeking routes, periodic time outs to decide on the next stage, doing deals with native American leaders along the way, and constantly needing to send back for more money and equipment. Welcome to institutional reform processes in the real world. The trouble is, say the authors, too many would-be reformers are applying 2015 approaches to the 1804 world – in lieu of a map, they grab some best practice from one country and try to ‘roll it out’ in another. Not surprisingly, it seldom works – many country political systems look more like 1804 than 2015.

BSC ch 7The chapter that really got me excited was the one on the importance of problems. ‘Focussing relentlessly on solving a specific, attention-grabbing problem’ has numerous advantages over ‘best practice’, solution-driven cookie cutters:

  • Problems are often context specific and require you to pay sustained attention to real life, rather than toolkits
  • You can acknowledge the problem without pretending you have the solution – that comes through experimentation and will be different in each context
  • Exploring and winning recognition of the problem helps build the coalition of players you need to make change happen
  • Problems often become clear during a shock or critical juncture – just when windows of opportunity for change are likely to open up

The book offers great tips on how to dig into a problem and get to its most useful core – often people start off with a problem that is really just the absence of a solution (eg ‘we don’t have an anti-corruption commission’). The trick is to keep saying ‘why does this matter’ until you get to something specific that is a ‘real performance deficiency’. Then you can start to rally support for doing something about it.

The next stage is to break down the big problem into lots of small, more soluble ones. For each of these, the book recommends establishing the state of the ‘change space’ for reform, born of a set of factors they label the ‘triple A’: Authority (do the right people want things to change?), Acceptance (will those affected accept the reform?) and Ability (are the time, money and skills in place?). Where the 3 As are present, then the book recommends going for it, trying to get some quick wins to build momentum. Where they are not, then reformers face a long game to build the change space, before jumping into reform efforts.

In all this what is special is that the advice and ideas are born of actually trying to do this stuff in dozens of countries. The authorial combination of Harvard and the World Bank means governments are regularly beating a path to their door, as are students (BSC runs a popular – and free – online learning course on PDIA).

Another attractive feature is the effort to avoid this becoming some kind of kumbaya, let a hundred flowers bloom justification for people doing anything BSC searchframethey fancy. To give comfort to bosses and funders, they propose a ‘searchframe’ to replace the much-denounced logframe. This establishes a firm and rapid timetable of ‘iteration check-ins’ where progress is assessed and new ideas or tweaks to the existing ones are introduced.

Finally a chapter on ‘Managing your Authorizing Environment’ is a great effort at showing reformers how to do an internal power analysis within their organizations, and come up with an internal theory of change on how to build and maintain support for reforms.

That chapter got me thinking about the book’s relevance to INGOs. It is explicitly aimed elsewhere – at reforming state systems, but people in NGOs, who often work at a smaller scale than the big reform processes discussed in the book, could learn a lot, particularly from the chapters on problem definition and the authorizing environment. Oxfam has been going through a painful and drawn out process to integrate the work of 20 different Oxfam affiliates, known as ‘Oxfam 2020’. I wonder what would have happened if we had signed up the 3 PDIA kings to advise on how to run it?

This blog first appeared on the Oxfam blog

Dealing with a wicked hard problem in India

Guest blog post by S. Nagarajan

I recently joined the PDIA online course, inspired by attending the launch of the Building State Capability Book at the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

A few weeks into the course, I was introduced to the typology of the capability required depending on the task. The task could be

  1. Policy making (and elite concentrated services) which requires relatively few people to implement;
  2. Logistics, where a large number of agents follow simple scripts without exercising much judgement or discretion, and act on objective facts;
  3. Implementation intensive services delivery, requiring a large number of agents engaged in complicated actions involving discretion and interact with people who benefit from the service;
  4. Implementation intensive imposition of obligations, which could be resisted by the people; and finally
  5. Wicked hard tasks which combine transaction intensive, discretionary, and are not based on a known technology.

Learning this typology reminded me of a wicked hard problem some of us had encountered as heads of districts in Tamil Nadu State, India and how we solved it.

The state government provided welfare assistance to differently abled persons, depending upon their level of disability. In May 2011, the assistance was doubled to one thousand rupees a month. However, to get the assistance sanctioned, the applicant had to approach several departments in sequence – (i)  a panel of three doctors, including the relevant specialist, would certify the level of disability; (ii) the district officer of the department for differently-abled would issue an identity card based on the doctors’ certification; (iii) the sub-district administration responsible for social security would sanction the assistance. This would need the recommendation of a chain of officials from the village-level upwards. If the applicant was below a certain age, a committee had to be convened to specially permit the sanction of the assistance. Each of these processes was an implementation intensive service delivery task. Typically, there could be thousands of agents responsible for the service delivery, working in offices and hospitals dispersed all over the district. The applicants simply could not navigate all these processes in sequence. The coordinated service delivery was a wicked hard problem for the district administration.

Years earlier, while working as the assistant to the head of another district, I had seen how this could be solved- by conducting camps. My friends heading other districts and I proceeded to conduct camps for the differently-abled in each sub-district. On designated days, the doctors and all officials from the relevant departments would be available at a single venue. The differently-abled persons who were interested in assistance were mobilized by elected functionaries of local governments to the venue, and all the processes completed synchronously within a day. Public spirited organizations pitched in by providing support for transport, food and organization. Many other departments of the state government that has programs targeted at the differently-abled were also present to serve.

While the overall task was wicked hard, we figured out intuitively that the solution was to reduce the problem to it implementation intensive elements, and also to reduce discretion greatly –transforming the task into almost a logistical problem.

  • Firstly, the agents could not be absent from the camp. A village level official is a busy person and might not be always present at the office: the applicant could now expect to see him at the camp with certainty.
  • Second, the applicant is more confident and assertive of her rights in the camp with thousands of fellow applicants and well-wishers, rather than singly meeting the agents in their own offices – ‘the lion in the den’.
  • Third, the agents cannot wrongly exercise discretion leading to errors of inclusion or exclusion under official and public scrutiny.
  • Fourth, bringing together agents of the same type allowed them to exchange notes, build up their body of knowledge and decide fairly on each case.
  • Finally, the camp ethos was to err on the side of liberality so that more people benefitted by the welfare program. However, it should be noted the problem cannot be reduced to logistics – a doctor or a professional administrator carries a body of knowledge that cannot be reduced to a script, and would always have to exercise discretion.

At the end of the day, the applicant could walk out of the camp with an identity card, an order sanctioning welfare assistance and more. In every district where camps were held, the number of persons received assistance went up by a factor of three to four.

The district heads operated in an authorizing environment created by the state government and could innovate with ideas such as camps. Each district conducted dozens of camps at the sub-district level, learning and improving on the job. The idea of camps in successfully addressing differently-abled welfare spread out from the initial few districts: in a matter of months, most districts started conducting similar camps.

~~ The author is a member of the Indian Administrative Service and is an MPP student at Harvard Kennedy School.