what you get here

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!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Avoiding Best Practice

The last few posts (on cultural values) have led me back to the draft of a little book I abandoned two years ago – Crafting Effective Public Management - a collection of personal reflections about the craft I have followed now for almost 50 years.
As it stands, the document represents the musings I penned as I tried to understand the lessons from the very distinctive work which has occupied me for most of the last half of this period – namely reforming institutions of local and central state administration in ex-communist countries in these regions....
The opening section of the book (Part 1) was written in the late 1990s as I was trying to explain to a Central European audience the nature and significance of the changes in organising the business of government which started in britain in the 1970s and soon became global in scope. Separated geographically by then for almost a decade from that world, I could perhaps aspire to a measure of distance if not objectivity….

“Managing Change” may have been at the height of fashion then back home but the projects funded in the “newly-liberated countries” by Europe (and America) were not in the business of “catalysing” change but rather “imposing” it….”This is the way it's going to be”!! I vividly remembering the ticking off I got from the German company which employed me when, as Director of an Energy Centre in Prague, I offered some ideas for how the centre’s work might better fit the Czecho-Slovak context (it was 1992). Their response was classic - “We do not pay you to think – we pay you to obey”……I kid you not!! German friends tell me that there are traces in that formulation of the old Prussian influence!
It became obvious to me that these centres (funded by the European Commission) which purported to be helping countries of the ex-soviet bloc adjust to new ways of energy conservation were in fact little more than fronts for the selling of western technology…

“Best practice” was the phrase which the British private sector consultants were bringing with them to projects and was one to which I was starting to object. It was in Tashkent in 2000 that I first drafted material to make a point about the relative novelty of the government procedures in Europe which passed for “best practice” (whether in matters of hiring or procurement) and the number of exceptions one could find not just in southern European countries but even in the heart of Europe…..
As writers such as Ha-Joon Chang have documented in the development field, a lot of kidology was clearly going on!

Old draft material is like a good cheese or wine – it needs time to mature. And, rereading my material on ”crafting effective PM” made me realise that, despite my own determination since the beginning of my work here always to start from the local context and to find ”local champions”, I felt it needed more detail on how exactly to avoid the trap of "the best practice" formulae which are embedded in most EC guidelines...  
I have never been a fan of the World Bank but its Governance Reforms under real world conditions (2006) is one of the best reads - one paper in particular (by Matthew Andrews which starts part 2 of that book) weaves a very good approach around 3 words – “acceptance”, “authority” and “ability”. 
I enthused about the paper in a 2010 post and notice that he (and a couple of colleagues) have another book out - Building State Capability  - on the same theme of the need for a practical, ”learning approach” The book can be downloaded in its entirety from the publisher here.....
It’s got too much jargon for my taste; rather overdoes the analyses of individual (African and Asian) countries; and disfigures every line of every page with this annoying academic habit which groups names in brackets to prove that the author has read everything - but its basic argument is very important and can be read in this earlier paper by Andrews and Moorcock about something called ”Capability Traps”. 

capability traps can be avoided and overcome by fostering different types of interventions…..which - 
(i) aim to solve particular problems in local contexts,
(ii) through the creation of an ‘authorizing environment’ for decisionmaking that allows ‘positive deviation’ and experimentation,
(iii) involving active, ongoing and experiential learning and the iterative feedback of lessons into new solutions, doing so by
(iv) engaging broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate and relevant—i.e., politically supportable and practically implementable.

We propose this kind of intervention as an alternative approach to enhancing state capability, one we call Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). We emphasize that PDIA is not so much ‘new’ thinking as an attempt at a pragmatic and operational synthesis of related

The authors are part of an increasing number of people who want, like me, to “do development differently” – a few years back it was called…. political analysis……. From Political Economy to Political Analysis (2014) is an excellent overview of the thinking process

The basic ideas can be expressed a bit more simply -
- Fixing on an issue widely seen as problematic
- Getting people to admit that it can’t be solved by the usual top-down approach
- Getting wide ”buy-in” to this
- Bringing people together from all sectors which are touched by the issue
- Starting from an analysis of where we find ourselves  (reminds me of a philosophical colleague known for his phrase “We are where we are”!)
- Avoiding polarisation
- Working patiently to seek a feasible and acceptable solution

Fairly simple steps - which, however, conflict with prevailing political cultures – and not just in Central Europe!!

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