Doing Problem Driven Work, great new guide for governance reformers and activists
One of the criticisms of the big picture discussion on governance that’s been going on in networks such as Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically is that it’s all very helicopter-ish. ‘What do I do differently on Monday morning?’, comes the frustrated cry of the practitioner. Now some really useful answers are starting to come onstream, and I’ll review a few of them.
First up is ‘Doing Problem Driven Work’, a paper by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock. It turns previous work on PDIA – ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ – into a toolkit, aimed primarily at those involved in reforming governance from the inside, whether government reformers, or big bilateral and World Bank donors with access to the corridors of power. However, there are clear parallels with and lessons for the work of more ‘outsider’ NGOs and campaigners.
It starts by noting that while many reform projects have failed in the past, those that succeeded often involved a ‘problem focus’. Problems ‘force policymakers and would-be reformers to ask questions about the incumbent ways of doing things’ and ‘provide a rallying point for coordinating distributed agents who might otherwise clash in the change process’. ‘Good’ problems are urgent and can be easily addressed by those in the room. They often spring from crises or other ‘critical junctures’.
The first step for a would-be reformer is ‘problem construction’, which ‘involves gathering key change agents to answer four questions: ‘What is the problem?’, ‘Why does it matter?’, ‘To whom does it matter?’, ‘Who needs to care more?’ and ‘How do we get them to give it more attention?’’ Defining the problem is key: it’s no good having a woffly ‘corruption is a problem’ type statement – you need ‘a real performance deficiency that cannot be ignored’, like ‘we can’t get education and health care to these communities, because the municipal officials keep nicking the money’.
Once you have a problem, you can get started, with your doughty band of reformers:
What is the problem? (and how would we measure it or tell stories about it?)
Why does it matter? (and how do we measure this or tell stories about it?) Ask this question until you are at the point where you can effectively answer the question below, with more names than just your own.
To whom does it matter? (In other words, ‘who cares? other than me?) Who needs to care more? How do we get them to give it more attention? What will the problem look like when it is solved? Can we think of what progress might look like in a year, or 6 months?
The authors stress the importance of ‘authority’. For insider reformers like them, the key is to get political backing for the reform, preferably from the president or similar, which opens doors and aligns incentives.
Authority forms part of a ‘triple A change space analysis’, together with ‘acceptance’ and ‘ability’:
Authority to engage
Who has the authority to engage: Legal? Procedural? Informal? Which of the authorizer(s) might support engagement now? Which probably would not support engagement now? Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
Which agents (person/organization) has interest in this work?
- For each agent, on a scale of 1-10, think about how much they are likely to support engagement?
- On a scale of 1-10, think about how much influence each agent has over potential engagement?
- What proportion of ‘strong acceptance’ agents do you have (with above 5 on both estimates)?
- What proportion of ‘low acceptance’ agents do you have (with below 5 on both estimates)?
Overall, how much acceptance do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
What is your personnel ability?
- Who are the key (smallest group of) agents you need to ‘work’ on any opening engagement?
- How much time would you need from these agents? What is your resource ability?
- How much money would you need to engage?
- What other resources do you need to engage? Overall, how much ability do you think you have to engage, and where are the gaps?
The questions also highlight some of the weaknesses of PDIA – there’s no power analysis here, for example, whether some people who are currently not involved in decision-making could become so, and what might enable them to do so; who are the blockers, and do they operate through the exercise of visible or hidden power? A good power analysis would definitely lead to more refined tactics. There’s also a lack of a real systems approach, for example looking for positive deviants that are already working, or emergent hybrid institutions that combine new and traditional approaches. It all feels quite top down and traditional.
On the other hand, I like the bottom-up construction of problem and solution, and the authors have been out there, doing this kind of work for years, so the paper is full of practical examples.
I’d be interested in what people think.