Friday, October 23, 2015

Welcome to new thinking in governance and beyond, by Frauke de Weijer

Welcome, to the Governance Practitioners Notebook! Incredibly, this group of scholars, with their diverse backgrounds, interpretations, language, and ways of making sense of the challenges of improving governance are arguing for the same thing. Problem-driven, with the problem locally defined. Iterative and adaptive, with flexibility and learning built into programme design. With less reliance on technical solutions, and more eye for the political nature of all change processes. With more humility and less ego. This is the new school of thought that is emerging, currently still under the banner of ‘Alternative Ideas and Approaches’, but moving fast into the mainstream. I am thrilled.

Reading through the Notebook however I cannot help feeling sorry for Lucy, the fictional governance practitioner in the book, who is inundated with new concepts, ideas and warnings flowing from this new way of thinking. Many articles, including our own, describe the pressures she is under, shaped by the tensions between the need for quick, visible and measurable results and the reality of deep institutional change being slow, unpredictable and hard to influence. The realities of our development architecture, most notably the intrinsically bureaucratic nature of our civil service and the right of domestic parliaments for hold their development agencies to account, are not very conducive to the kind of sea-change this new way of thinking requires. How can we square this circle?

Fundamental change is necessary in two dimensions. Firstly, changes need to be made to the functioning of our development architecture in order to create the space for more adaptive and flexible programming while maintaining public accountability. Secondly, the mental model with which development is approached needs to transition from one that is expert-driven to a more strategic and humble one.

This Notebook offers a number of ways in which programming can be made more informed by the socio-political context and more flexible in nature, ranging from political economy analysis, problem-driven iterative adaptation, good-enough programming to development entrepreneurs.  New monitoring and evaluation tools, such as theory of change or outcome mapping models, can also support critical reflection. Yet, all these tools are likely to end up becoming straightjackets again, as long as one fundamental change is not made: In the future accountability needs to be based on learning. How well does a programme learn? How and when did its adapt its strategy, and how solid was the analysis this adaptation was based on? How did it set and adapt its intermediate indicators, and how grounded in the context were they? Only in this manner can the paradox of accountability versus flexibility be overcome.  

The deeper underlying issue however is one of mental models; the mind set with which we approach development. Identifying and implementing truly context-sensitive or ‘best-fit’ solutions is not simply a matter of conducting better analysis and formulating a more politically smart programme (although that would already be a major step forward). Policy makers and practitioners are educated in a certain discipline and equipped with the “state of the art” knowledge in their field. This knowledge is deeply infused with the worldviews in which it is embedded, and leads practitioners to believe that certain practices are objectively the best whereas they are in fact deeply ideologically driven. This automatically reduces the legitimacy of alternative perspectives that may not meet Western standards, but could fit the context well, or at least needs to be part of the ‘constructive contestation’ that is the engine of social change. It also reduces the credibility of certain reformists, whose ideas do not match international best practice. They are at risk of being seen as “spoilers of the reform process” rather than as holding one of the keys to a solution.

Moving away from this expert mind set requires individuals to be conscious of – and able to transcend - the ideological and technocratic ballast they hold. It requires them to understand, and not automatically discard, the perspectives of other factions and viewing these as necessary parts of the solution. Interesting research on adult development by the Harvard School of Education shows that a very small percentage of adult individuals arrive at this level of mental complexity, which they call the transformative mind set[1]. This raises interesting questions on how to expand the mental complexity of both individuals and institutions that will allow them to put these ideas in practice.

On this note, one final word of caution. The more practical guidance given in this Notebook centres on facilitating collective action, building coalitions, facilitating constructive deliberation and so forth. Let us not follow into the trap of adopting a new blueprint approach, and for all of us to go out and build coalitions! Sometimes this may be possible, sometimes they may not be. Sometimes a constructive alliance between elites and marginalised may be realistic, sometimes it may not be. We need to work harder to develop or make use of existing frameworks[2] and methods not just for analysing the context but also for determining which operational approaches may work in which change contexts, why and how.  Social change is an art, and let us make sure we do not flatten it again. Sorry, Lucy.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its member countries.

[1] Less than 1% in two studies conducted. Source: Kegan and Lahey, Immunity to Change, Harvard Business Press, 2009.
[2] The adaptive leadership framework developed and practiced by Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Dean Williams is a good example of a framework that can be used.