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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Opportunistic theory of change


I left the mid-October discussion about public sector reform in transition countries rather hanging in the air. It was triggered by a review of Tom Gallagher’s recent book about Romania and its accession to the EU – reminding us all how skilfully, for 20 years, the political class has been able to resist external reform exhortations, drawing on the collective skills the country’s elites have developed over the generations in minimising external efforts at control or influence - whether from Moscow or Constantinople. And, of the other countries I know well, a recent report on Azerbaijan and article on Uzbekistan remind us how many traditional power structures have been able to maintain themselves.
I left the discussion with three draft questions -
• what advice would I give anyone looking to undertake real reform of such kleptocracies as Romania or Azerbaizan?
• How can such people be encouraged - what examples can we offer of government reform programmes actually making a difference?
• How can the effort to ensure good government be sustained in such countries – given the strength of financial and commercial systems and the iron law of oligrachy?

We have to face the possibility that technical assistance in these countries does little more than give the younger political elite a different political vocabulary to use in their grab for power. An interesting book I was able to download recently from the World Bank site Governance Reforms under real world conditions is written around the sorts of questions we consultants deal with on a daily basis -
1. How do we build broad coalitions of influentials in favour of change? What do we do about powerful vested interests?
2. How do we help reformers transform indifferent, or even hostile, public opinion into support for reform objectives?
3. How do we instigate citizen demand for good governance and accountability to sustain governance reform?
The paper by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of the book weaves a very good theory around 3 words – acceptance, authority and ability.

Is there acceptance of the need for change and reform?
• of the specific reform idea?
• of the monetary costs for reform?
• of the social costs for reformers?
• within the incentive fabric of the organization (not just with individuals)?

Is there authority:
• does legislation allow people to challenge the status quo and initiate reform?
• do formal organizational structures and rules allow reformers to do what is needed?
• do informal organizational norms allow reformers to do what needs to be done?

Is there ability: are there enough people, with appropriate skills,
• to conceptualize and implement the reform?
• is technology sufficient?
• are there appropriate information sources to help conceptualize, plan, implement, and institutionalize the reform?

A diagram shows that each of these plays a different role at the 4 stages of conceptualisation, initiation, transition and institutionalisation and that it is the space of overlapping circles that the opportunity for change occurs. “Reform space”, at the intersection of acceptance, authority, and ability, determines how much can be achieved. However the short para headed - Individual champions matter less than networks – was the one that hit nerves.
The individual who connects nodes is the key to the network but is often not the one who has the technical idea or who is called the reform champion. His or her skill lies in the ability to bridge relational boundaries and to bring people together. Development is fostered in the presence of robust networks with skilled connectors acting at their heart.
My mind was taken back almost 30 years when, as the guy in charge of Strathclyde Region’s strategy to combat deprivation but using my academic role, I established what I called the urban change network and brought together once a month a diverse collection of officials and councillors of different councils in the West of Scotland, academics and NGO people to explore how we could extend our understanding of what we were dealing with – and how our policies might make more impact. It was, I think, the single most effective thing I ever did. I still have the tapes of some of the discussions – one, for example, led by Professor Lewis Gunn on issues of implementation!
A few years back, I developed for the lectures I gave to middle managers in these kleptomanic states what I called an “opportunistic” theory of change

• “Windows of opportunity present themselves - from outside the organization, in crises, pressure from below
• reformers have to be technically prepared, inspire confidence – and able to seize and direct the opportunity
• Others have to have a reason to follow
• the new ways of behaving have to be formalized in new structures
Laws, regulations and other policy tools will work if there are enough people who want them to succeed. And such people do exist. They can be found in Parliaments (even in tame and fixed parliaments, there are individual respected MPs impatient for reform); Ministries of Finance; have an interest in policy coherence; NGOs; Younger generation – particularly in academia, policy shops and the media
The question is how they can become a catalytic force for change – and what is the legitimate role in this of donors?”
I have the weekend to see if I have anything to offer the next NISPAcee Conference which takes place in may just down the road - at Varna on the Black Sea. Since delivering the critical paper on TA in 2006, they have actually set up a working group on this issue and I really should do a follow up paper. But what?

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