Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Four paradoxes of the long-distance governance advisor, by Graham TESKEY

Starting out in a new job in a new organisation is a daunting task for most people. There is just so much stuff to learn: rules and regulations, systems and structures, people and processes. And usually before you have had time to settle down and understand how things really work (rather than how the operational manual describes it) you actually are given real work to do. This is the situation that Lucy, the heroine of this Governance Practitioner’s Notebook, finds herself; she is told she has to get on a ‘plane and fly off and actually advise.  She feels it’s almost a test – the aim of which is to find her out, to prove that it’s true: “aha, you really don’t know anything about the real world, do you?”
I well remember when I moved to DFID headquarters in London in 1996 and joined the newly established Governance and Institutions Department, being asked to visit a country to which I had never been, and to advise on a project in a sector on which I had never worked. I took my dilemma to a hugely respected senior advisor (long since retired but he cannot stop consulting – he just loves it too much). I remember very clearly him saying to me “Graham, you must realise that most organisations prefer the views of an ignorant insider to those of a very-well informed outsider”. In subsequent years I have found this absolutely to be the case. 
Once Lucy gets over the shock of being asked to express her views and actually make some concrete proposals and recommendations, she will discover many more challenges along the way. We can see from this Notebook that Lucy is very well educated and academically up to date on all the big debates in development and governance. For any Head of Governance she is an absolutely ideal newbie. But as she matures and grows on the job, she will discover the first paradox of the long-distance governance adviser. As she gains experience, expectations of her will increase and she will be required to be more certain in her judgements. Yet simultaneously, Lucy herself is aware that the more she knows about any country context, the more she realises she doesn’t know. This nagging angst is likely to stay with Lucy for her whole career.
On returning home after this first overseas mission (even the terminology is decidedly evangelical), Lucy submits her carefully crafted and spell-checked back-to-office report. She is dismayed when her line manager asks for a shorter version, omitting the academic guff and conceptualisations; but adding more specificity on results and the time frame.  On many successive journeys, Lucy will ponder the history, context and all the formal and informal rules of the game that influence individual and collective behaviour in the country she has just visited. In her notebook, she will sketch out some options, in writing them she knows how vulnerable to assumptions and uncertainty these ideas and proposals are. After stiff drinks she may feel increasingly confident that she can write convincing pieces explaining why the initiatives are relevant.
She does this by drawing on her growing experience, the literature and the international evidence base. In so doing, and over time, she will discover the second paradox of the long distance governance adviser, one that is rooted in the political economy of most development organisations: the divide between rhetoric and reality. Development organisations usually say the right thing about the importance of detailed and careful analysis, context and history. But in reality, most development organisations prize certainty, brevity and simplicity. Senior bureaucrats are too busy to read more than two or three pages of text, and their spans of responsibility are just too large to allow them to delve deeply into issues. They want crisp text with clear recommendations specifying costs and outputs (and preferably outcomes). This is not a criticism: it is just how it is. We all know it.
Over the years, new advisers, including Lucy, will learn how to use analytical concepts to frame discussions and pose questions without laborious references to the great, the good or the most recent insightful blog post or journal article. In so doing they discover a third paradox; Lucy, in her role as an adviser, will be want to ask questions, to explore possible development pathways. But increasingly program management teams under pressure on spend and results may not  want this – they seem to want to close things down, to narrow the parameters of the analysis and move on to the next item on the agenda. In short as a technical professional Lucy will want to argue to a conclusion, where her colleagues seem to want to argue to a decision. And a decision that may not reflect all the evidence she has laid on the table - in her back-to-office reports.
Even ifLucy is promoted a couple of times becomes a respected part of her organisation she willstill worries that she does not quite fit in with the bureaucratic culture. However, as with all good fairy tales, this story has a happy ending. One day Lucy is asked to peer review an ex-post evaluation of one of the projects that eventuated from her very first mission all those years ago. Lucy takes home the document –in soft copy of course now that the department had gone paper free – and reads it with growing interest and amazement. It appears that many of her recommendations had been taking into account by the design team, and the Contracting Manager had actually stuck to the plan as far as possible! Amazing!
The results table shows that – give or take a few complete flops (which are ok as the project was ‘doing development differently’ – the development fad at the time) the program was pretty successful.  On a number of counts (relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact) the program was judged “highly successful”. In the report Lucy saw echoes of her initial judgements about opportunities to be taken, risks to be born and assumptions to be checked. She is astonished. And here lies the fourth paradox of the long-distance governance adviser: Lucy labours in the short-term, in the here and now of gritty politics and all the uncertainties of stuff happening, while it is usually only in the long term, after many years have passed, are we able to see the value – or otherwise - of our work.
Here’s to Lucy!
(Graham Teskey is an editor of, and a contributor to, The Governance Practitioner’s Handbook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches)
Graham Teskey is Principal Governance Specialist for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra. Previously Graham had positions with DFID and the World Bank. He began his career as an economist with appointments in Fiji, Vanuatu and Tanzania. Before joining DFID in 1993 Graham taught development studies at the University of Bradford. He has degrees in economics, planning and business administration.

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