How often do public policies really fail? A question to help you escape the policy futility trap

written by Matt Andrews

Last week I blogged about the ‘public policy futility trap’ in which countries get stuck when a negative feedback loop institutionalizes itself in the public policy domain. Experiences of past policy failure erodes the confidence (of citizens and public officials) to deliver in future, which undermines the potential for positive future policy results, which in turn reinforces the view that  government cannot ‘get things done’, and on and on and on.

I think many countries are stuck in this trap, where negative feedback loops frustrate effort after effort to improve government capabilities. Initiatives designed to help governments get things done tend to fail when no one (in the citizenry or government) actually believes government can get things done.

So, how do governments get unstuck?

This is the question we plan to address—in practice —through the forthcoming Implementing Public Policy executive education course (starting in May 2019). The answer we suggest is simple: challenge the existing negative feedback loop by promoting cases of implementation success that can become the basis of new positive feedback loops—that help citizens and officials believe that more is possible tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Continue reading How often do public policies really fail? A question to help you escape the policy futility trap

Follow “Getting Things Done” at the Harvard Kennedy School

Matt Andrews teaches a course entitled “Getting Things Done: Management in the Development Context,” at the Harvard Kennedy School. He often gets asked about what he teaches in his course. So, he has decided to experiment with blogging about his course after every class. Each blog entry will include his powerpoint presentation, his syllabus, required readings/videos as well as a summary of what happened in class.

He already has two blogs up. The first class was about the need to understand the bureaucracy better, and second class was on classical management theory, bureaucracy and scientific management. You can see the entire syllabus here. This is your opportunity to follow the class and learn more about “getting things done in development.” Let us know what you think.

 

BSC Video 19: Is your activity transaction intensive?

An analytical typology can help you answer the question, building capability to do what? This is the first of four videos that addresses the analytical questions you need to ask in order to determine the implementation capability required for your activity. In this video, Lant Pritchett explains the meaning of transaction intensive using examples from health and education. You can watch the video below or on YouTube.

If you are interested in learning more, watch capability for policy implementation and why do we need a typology.

The 5 M’s of Development: Multiple Men and Women matter (Part 4 of 5)

written by Matt Andrews

As I reflect on how change happens in development, 5 themes come to mind. I have written about the importance of moments, muddling and the mundane. Today I will discuss the fourth one: multiple men and women matter. In my experience, development and governance reform is about people, not as targets of change, but as agents of change.

This is not a surprising observation but is an important one nonetheless, especially when one considers how little attention development initiatives commonly give to the men and women who have to risk and adapt and work to make change happen and ensure change is sustained. Development initiatives tend to emphasize ideas and money much more than people, even though it is the latter that actually come up with ideas, shape ideas to contexts, and use resources to foster change.

When people are considered in development initiatives, it is often with a narrow lens on ‘champions’ or ‘heroes’. That’s not the picture I see as relevant in the research and applied work I have been engaged in. This work shows me that development and change require multiple functions or roles: we need someone to identify problems, someone to identify solutions, someone to provide money, someone to authorize change activities, someone to motivate and inspire, someone to connect distributed agents, someone to convene smaller groups, someone to provide key resources other than money, and someone who can give an implementation perspective (of the implications of proposed change).

For a variety of theoretical reasons I don’t think we will often find these functions played by one person, or organization. My empirical research suggests that this is true in practice. What I see in my studies is that successful reform requires multiple people providing leadership in a coordinated and synergistic way, such that all the different functional roles are played in an orchestra of change (people who are familiar with Lee Kuan Yew’s view of leadership will relate to the idea of the orchestra).:

  • I wrote a paper on leadership in twelve interesting reforms, where I tested whether one person stood out as the major leader. I found that this was not the case at all. Many people were identified as leaders in the cases, all playing different roles in the change process.
  • In a review of 30 cases of successful reform (from Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies repository) I found that an average of 19 agents were mentioned as playing the roles noted. They all took risks and stood out for providing an important part of the change puzzle.

    The research does find that ‘champions’ exist in many cases, however. But being a champion does not mean being multiple people (or wearing multiple hats, or playing multiple functional roles). Instead, my work showed that where a champion exists, he or she plays three specific functional roles: Authorizing, Convening, and Motivating. The champions do not typically play the other roles.

The 5 M’s of Development: Mundane matters (Part 3 of 5)

written by Matt Andrews

As I reflect on how change happens in development, 5 themes come to mind. I wrote about the importance of moments which are vital to foster change in complex contexts, and muddling which is important to find and fit reform and change content that fosters real development. Today I will discuss the third one: mundane.

The mundane matters in development. What I mean is simply that everyday, boring, taken for granted events, pressures, relationships, activities and such have a huge influence on prospects for change and development. We think these things are ordinary, banal, and don’t matter. But actually they dominate time and activity, and are the key to ‘getting things done’ and to prospects for change and development.

If mundane processes and pressures do not foster efficient activity, organizations are likely to be inefficient–there will be loads of meetings and people answering emails and writing papers and filling in time sheets and doing due diligence activities but these mundane activities will not foster effective results. Similarly, if the mundane does not support change then change and development will not happen: people will attend meetings but won’t follow-up with new activities because their time is already spoken for by the mundane.

I have seen this more than ever before in some of my reform experiments in 2013. The trouble they ran into had little to do with a lack of ideas or money. Instead, the challenges were mundane: getting people to ‘do’ new things in already full calendars, and to sit in meetings and engage purposively without looking down at the three cell phones on the table in front of them, and more. In all the experiences I have been part of, change only started when these and other mundane influences were managed or even altered.

The problem is two-fold:

  • First, development is full of mundanity. Governments and development organizations are the ones Andy Partridge (lead singer of the 80s band XTC) was talking about when he wrote: “We’re horrible mundane, aggressively mundane, individuals. We’re the ninjas of the mundane…”
  • Second, the mundane is mundane. What I mean is that most development specialists think it does not matter. “Too boring. Too unimportant. So easy to overcome. Surely not as important as rigorous empirical analysis and fancy new ideas.” But they often find that the mundane crowds out the new activities and empirics–again and again–to limit and undermine development initiatives.

mundane

It would be great to see development experts taking the mundane seriously. I think a strategy to identify, manage and even alter the mundane could be more important than most fancy development strategies. And infinitely more valuable than a fancy ‘Science of Delivery’. We need to rethink the mundane, seeing it as the key to getting things done and the key to change; less ordinary and banal and boring and more central to development.

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.