BSC Video 14: How is PDIA different?

Today we are proud to launch the next set of BSC videos. These build upon the first 13 videos and provide more details about our approach. We will be releasing 22 videos over the next few months. We hope you enjoy them!

One question we often hear after making a presentation on PDIA is, “this sounds like X ..” It is thus important to distinguish our approach from that of others. In this video, Michael Woolcock, highlights two ways in which PDIA is different from other similar sounding approaches: (i) it moves from a critique to a response, and (ii) it enables a system to be more functional. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

Can PDIA help to deliver services for the poor?

10 years ago, the World Development Report (WDR) 2004 entitled Making Services Work for Poor People, marked a watershed moment in the development agenda. It recognized that politics and accountability are crucial to improving services. Furthermore, it shifted the focus from measuring inputs to outputs.

Earlier this month, ODI and the World Bank jointly organized a 10th year anniversary conference to celebrate the achievements over the last decade and to discuss what remains to be done. You can browse the multimedia summary of the event.

In the opening plenary, Shanta Devarajan stated that the WDR 2004 changed the nature of the conversation by recognizing that: (i) services fail poor people, (ii) money is not the solution, and (iii) “the solution” is not the solution.

What have we learned?

  • Context Matters: We got better at describing service delivery problems but not at improving services. Ruth Levine in her interview acknowledged that we have learned how to measure how significant the problem is and to unpack the dimensions of service delivery quality. But we have not learned anything generalizable because context matters.
  • Politics Matters: Marta Foresti noted that ‘politics is not just a problem it’s also part of the solution.’ Working around politics rather than with it, does not work.
  • Connections Matter: In her reflections, Leni Wild wrote – we are dealing with systems and networks through which a much wider set of stakeholders are connected. So the nature of the connections matters, in terms of power balances, incentives and norms. This is similar to what Matt Andrews calls multi-agent leadership.
  • Motivating actors to do the right thing is much harder in practice, said Rakesh Rajani in his interview.
  • Individual capacity ≠ organizational capability: Lant Pritchett explained the difference in his interview.

So what will it take to deliver services for the poor?

  • Experimentation: Ruth Levine stressed the need to focus on organizations, individuals embedded in local circumstances/context and enabling local  providers to experiment and learn what works in their context. She added, “it is a long complicated road.”
  • Humility, Curiosity and Openness: Rakesh Rajani stated that we have to be able to know we don’t have all the answers. It is unlikely to work the first time and so we need to have the courage to tweak, listen to others and to learn from failure. Asking questions, trying, iterating, struggling and learning, rather than having solutions, is key.
  • Commitment at every level, political, organizational and individual.
  • Willingness to acknowledge and learn from failure.

These sound a lot like PDIA principles …


Image reproduced from a blog on writing and inspiration:

BSC Video 13: Scaling through the Diffusion of Practice

Innovations and adaptations that occur in one place often need to be scaled in order to lead to system-level change. However, in development, the road from small to big is challenging and rife with pitfalls. In this last of the first BSC video series, Michael Woolcock, discusses our approach to building state capability, which is built around having communities of practice around the world. These are initially small teams within organizations that have the authority, latitude, opportunity and resources to tackle problems they encounter by learning, iterating and adapting. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

Stay tuned for more BSC videos coming soon.

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 11: Learn Iterate Adapt

Organizations have multiple objectives. In public organizations, the search for legitimacy often clashes with the search for functionality. This is mainly because rewards are geared around form and not function. In this video, Matt Andrews, talks about how you can get both legitimacy and functionality at the same time. 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, 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 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.