Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Governance Practitioner’s Notebook – Sceptics Welcome, by Alan WHAITES

We are at an interesting time in the evolution of thinking on governance practice; academics and economists agree like never before that institutions are crucial to economic and social performance, and yet practitioners often seem riddled with doubt about what really works. Institutions are central to the delivery of the new sustainable development goals, but exactly how you get good institutions remains opaque, contested and often a question of ideological taste.  

The issue is, however, now thrown into sharp profile by the need to both deliver and measure the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.   How can development actors assist partners to achieve this agenda? And what kinds of approaches will be needed in the future? 

Looking at the role of aid actors in supporting reform is therefore timely.   The Governance Practitioner’s Notebook certainly takes an unusual approach for the OECD-DAC Network on Governance (GovNet).   It brings together a collection of specially written notes aimed at those who work as governance practitioners within development agencies.   It does so, however, without attempting to offer definitive guidance – instead aiming to stimulate thinking and debate.  To aid this process the book is centred on a fictional Governance Adviser, “Lucy”.  Lucy, because institutions go back to the dawn of time and Lucy was around then, or so we understand from Richard Leakey. Lucy works for an equally fictitious aid agency, the Department for Foreign Affairs and International Development (DFAID).  

Focusing on three key issues - politics, the public sector, and stakeholders – the Notebook presents a series of briefings from external experts and from experienced governance practitioners.  These briefings chart the evolution of governance thinking on major themes, and highlight the challenges and dilemmas practitioners currently face.   Contributors to the Notebook include: Sue Unsworth, Tom Carothers, Lant Pritchett, Heather Marquette, David Booth, Matt Andrews, Fletcher Tembo, Ousmane Sy and Severine Bellina, each offering insights into new approaches.

The Notebook accepts that governance, the process of how power is managed, is fundamentally a question of politics, institutions and individuals. Supporting counterpart systems to become more effective therefore also means helping them to be more responsive, accountable and inclusive.  The Noetebook suggests that if that external help and support is to make a difference by 2030 then practitioners will need to adapt their ways of working, adopting more flexible and iterative tools.  As the Notebook points out - governance has often been quick to change its concepts and slow to change its approach and instruments. 

The underlying assumption of the Notebook is that there is much to be gained from debate and self-critique – but with an eye on application through better support to partners.  In reality each sub-area of governance work is a world of debate in its own right and while the Notebook covers a lot of ground there is still much that is left unsaid.   Some of the biggest obstacles to change may arise from the political economy of the aid agencies that governance advisors work within.  For example, the emphasis on quantifiable results or `best practice’ solutions, are highlighted by some contributors as making it difficult to deliver effective governance programming.

As a result an important central message is perhaps the need to remain open, innovative and inquisitive, as Sue Unsworth reminded us in “An upside-down view of governance”, “New art students are often advised to close off their pre-existing knowledge about the objects they are trying to draw, and instead focus on angles, spaces, lines, proportions and relationships. Development practitioners similarly need to close off their mental models about governance and development that are rooted in OECD experience.”  An openness that is particularly important for those who work on governance, who often walk a tightrope, with accusations of paternalism and interference on one side and charges of slowness and myopia on the other.

Ultimately the fictional adviser at the heart of the story is left skeptical, questioning and willing to challenge the ideas involved.   Her Notebook may be full of expert writing, tempered by the advice of practitioners, and by the reality of context, but without anything taken for granted.  The group behind the Notebook (edited by myself, Eduardo Gonzalez, Sara Fyson and Graham Teskey), hope that readers take it in a similar vein – a spur for thinking, rather than a formula for finding the perfect answers.   

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