IPP Program Journey: The Legitimacy of Performance and Problem Oriented Institutional Development

Guest blog written by Etambuyu A Gundersen

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.


I had very high expectations of the course and what I was going to get out of it in terms of gaining not only new knowledge but also important skills in policy implementation that would assist me in my job. The course went above and beyond my expectations. The problem focused dimension of the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) eludes most practitioners in the policy space, explaining the high percentage of policy implementation failures. The IPP course has taught me not only how to create a space that enables learning in the process of policy implementation but also the importance of teams in driving the process in which a problem is identified and a solution or multiple solutions are designed to respond to the identified problem. I have since modified my idea of legitimacy and functional success based on the PDIA framework.

The key learning for me was realising that implementation is not the end phase of a policy cycle, it is just as important as the conceptual and formulation phase. In fact, it is a critical phase of the policy cycle because it is in the phase of implementation when things normally go very wrong, no matter how well designed a policy is. Engaging with an eco-system that either enables or inhibits the success of the policy requires acceptance of the problem and the cooperation of authorisers, all in the name of negotiating space for implementation.

The beginning for me was very muddled. As evidenced in my almost confused first fish bone. My policy challenge as I had conceptualised it was very daunting, my perceived role I soon realised was overwhelming. The fishbone exercise was an interesting moment during the process because it made me not only aware of my role and the limitations of my role but also strangely the opportunities that this presented because I did not have to shoulder the responsibility of this huge task on my own. I also realised that what I thought was the main policy challenge was in fact not. The structural set up of the Ministry of Peace was way beyond my sphere of influence even though I recognised that the new set up was a factor impacting on the policy challenge. My role and that of my organisation was made clearer after I identified through the fishbone the areas where other critical challenges needed to be addressed that would ultimately contribute to supporting the Ministry enhance its effectiveness when implementing its expanded mandate. Before the IPP course it never occurred to me to unpack and prioritise the role of my authorisers, I just assumed that they were on board since I have been assigned a task. The PDIA method helped me to deconstruct and recognise the critical role of authorisers, whom I needed to engage with and at which stage and what I needed to do to engage them in contributing to addressing my policy challenge. Continue reading IPP Program Journey: The Legitimacy of Performance and Problem Oriented Institutional Development

When is the next PDIA course?

written by Salimah Samji

Over the past several weeks, the most frequently asked question has been, “when is the next PDIA course?”

In the past 4 years, from November 2015 to June 2019, we have offered 11 online courses and trained 1,264 development practitioners in 87 countries!

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Our flagship PDIA online course has been an incredible learning journey for us and for our alumni. You can read some of their stories from Uganda, Nepal, Indonesia, Nigeria, Paraguay, Colombia, India, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, South Africa, Cambodia and many more! We even have some stories from alumni who are using PDIA in their day-to-day work more than a year after they completed our course. A true testament to the learning outcome.

While we have achieved so much in a short time, we strongly feel that it is time for us to take a little break to review our course content, results and impact. We plan to return with a new offering in 2020. In the interim, to ensure that you get your weekly fix of PDIA, we are launching a 12-part podcast series on the Practice of PDIA. We will release a new episode every Wednesday. The first episode is below and you can also subscribe and listen on SimplecastiTunes, Google Play, and Spotify.

Thank you to all the 1,264 alumni who have been real partners in our learning journey. It is your hard work and commitment to making the world a better place that inspires – we could not have done this without you!


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 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 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.

BSC Video 4: Capability for Policy Implementation

Policy implementation requires agents of organizations who are responsible for implementation, to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right place. In this video, Lant Pritchett, uses an example of delivering the mail and issuing driver’s licenses to illustrate this point. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more about the examples used in this video, read Letter Grading Government Efficiency, and Obtaining a Drivers License in India: An Experimental Approach to Studying Corruption.

BSC Video 3: Form ≠ Function

Development involves change, and change always happens within a context. The focus in development however, is on transplanting successes and adopting ambitious “best practice” modes of governance and public administration, which emphasize form (what organizations look like) and not function (what they actually do). This often provides the financing and legitimacy which allows continued dysfunction, while potentially crowding out space for local initiatives.

In this video, Matt Andrews, uses an example of internal audit reform in Burkina Faso to illustrate that when context is taken into consideration when introducing a reform, it functions even though it might take on a different form. 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 Limits of Institutional Reform.

New Year, New Logo

Happy New Year!

Building State Capability is the Center for International Development at Harvard University’s newest program. Since the inception, the team has published 13 UNU-WIDER working papers and made over 50 presentations around the globe.

As we head into the second year, we are pleased to share our new logo with you – see below. The logo captures some of our key considerations:

  • Building metaphor: Building state capability is a complex task which takes time and effort.
  • Blocks of diverse shapes and sizes: There are a multitude of tools that you can use. No one size fits all.
  • Gaps in the sphere: Local context is paramount. You never start with a clean slate.
  • Builders both inside and outside: You need multi-agent leadership at various levels.

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PDIA: does not necessarily take too long (Part 3/4)

written by Matt Andrews

This is the third of the four common excuses that I hear about why PDIA cannot be done in development. If you are interested, you can read the first and second one.

Excuse 3:  International development experts often tell me that PDIA is not possible because it takes too long.

This is not true, especially when one considers the timing issues of traditional development projects. In my experience, many development projects last 5 years or so and deliver little more than new forms. These projects are then followed by a new project doing the exact same thing. Yes I know it sounds far fetched, but I see this in all countries and areas of development. So, if the counterfactual is 20 years of anti corruption reform in Malawi (that did not curb corruption) why say PDIA is too slow when it calls for crawling the design space for a year or two before we lock in a solution?

Second, traditional projects take ages to prepare (often one to two years). The preparation is largely passive, based on work in offices by project designers whose ‘product’ is the project design (not its implementation). PDIA offers much more with multiple active experiments and iterations in the context that lead to on the ground learning, capacity building, team and coalition building, experiential learning and active project design + quick wins. These gains far exceed those of many traditional project design phases, and yield projects that are already being implemented.

Iterative processes take multiple steps, but these are not necessarily long, can be much shorter than one step projects, and offers an opportunity for structured learning along the way. We need to use our time well and PDIA allows us to do this.


PDIA: One can find or build political support (Part 2/4)

written by Matt Andrews

This is the second of the four common excuses that I hear about why PDIA cannot be done in development. If you are interested, you can read the first one.

Excuse 2:  International development experts often tell me that PDIA is not possible because politicians will never support it.

Again, simply not true. It is true that many politicians will look for big projects promising large things. This is what I call signaling in my book and is a major constraint in many countries. I think it is facilitated by donors who offer large loans in response to big promises for best practice, which often leads to a ‘what you see is not what you get‘ situation. But my research shows that there are reforms that yield functional improvements in government. And studies of these reforms suggest that politicians can also welcome and support PDIA type processes that go beyond signaling. Where a locally felt problem exists, it is clear to me that politicians are often very interested in processes that promise real solutions. And many politicians are aware that these solutions need to emerge gradually so that they are properly authorized and capacitated.

So a PDIA approach of active and iterative engagement is not foreign or unwelcome in such situations. Indeed, I see many politicians creating a holding environment for such engagement. These politicians value the tight feedback loops and the rapid opportunities to learn and build capacity in their organizations. They also like the quick wins, especially when these wins feed into broader narratives about solving problems and promoting development. Indeed, tight iteration may overcome the time inconsistency problem we often see in reform (where politicians need results quicker than a large multiuser project can deliver). Read the Burundi post for an example.