PDIA – complex or what?

Yesterday, I was a discussant to a presentation by Michael Woolcock of his book, Building State Capacity which is generously shared online for free.
To position my comments, I’m speaking as a proselytiser for ‘Embracing Complexity’ – for seeing the world as essentially interconnected, shaped by context and history, where the future is not entirely knowable. Essentially, wishing the world is more certain, predictable, controllable than it is does not make it so.
Michael and his colleagues embrace many of the aspects of this worldview. They are pointing out that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that there is a need to take account of context, to customise approaches, to ‘try it and see’, to adapt, to work with the ‘local authorising environment’ and to ‘see the organisation within its ecosystem’. All good stuff! Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) is rooted in a desire to proceduralise an approach to dealing with the complex world. The authors define PDIA as: ‘a process of nominating local problems, authorising and pushing positive deviations and innovation to solve problems, iterating with feedback to identify solutions, and the eventual diffusion of solutions through horizontal and interlinked non-organisational networks.’
There are three points I would like to raise, however, to dig a bit deeper.
First, I’d like to check out who is the problem? The authors say, on the first page of the introduction, that ‘The missing ingredient from previous efforts has been the failure to mobilise a vibrant social movement of citizens, researchers and development practitioners’. They point to a ‘lack of implementation capability’ and ‘little improvement in 50 years’ and that developing states ‘cannot perform like modern states’.
But are we not having the same problem – are our institutions working well in our ‘modern states’? For example, in the UK we see the solution to improving educational measures about tightening up rules and processes, standardising, increasingly measuring schools, pupils, teachers. Meanwhile we are 23 out or 24 for literacy and 24 out of 24 for numeracy (OECD, 2013). Equally, we are throwing away the custom and practice of centuries of our rule of law through deregulation and through changing statutes undemocratically through use of ‘statutory instruments’. We run the risk of destroying what has emerged over centuries, been refined and adapted as we learned through doing. Are ‘we’ so good in actuality?
And is not a key part of the problem for the developing world that ‘we’ the funders, ‘we’ the ‘experts’ from our ‘modern states’ still promote a managerialism based on linear thinking and demand associated behaviours? So, to what extent is ‘their’ capacity the central problem? When I’ve spoken to people on the ground and/or to experienced development practitioners it seems to me that ‘they’ often know what the issue is (managerialism stifling the ability to respond to contexts) and ‘they’ tend to have local solutions – which they either get on with secretly because they are going against the rules, or get frustrated and become compliant because ‘they’ are never asked what they think. So, as Michael said in the talk (but perhaps less in the book) and I agree, it feels that individuals do not lack capacity, but the systems – legal, educational, judicial – do. But will PDIA work to change these systems without also tackling this pervasive underpinning culture of obedience and compliance and its shadow culture of corruption which has resulted from ‘us’; from our own tendencies towards standardisation, best practice and simply knowing best because we are from ‘modern states’?
The second point I’d like to raise is about iteration and adaptation. The authors say that they would expect this to be ‘rapid and aggressive’ but in complex systems there is often a time lag between inputs and outputs and much subjectivity as to what has happened, what has worked and why? How and who decides ‘it’ has worked or not worked and that something else should be tried? Is rapid necessarily right; how do you decide? How do you notice and respond to outcomes that were unintended and unexpected but nevertheless positive? When do you change direction and when do you wait a bit longer because you feel there are tiny glimmers of a shift in attitude, a change in behaviour? There is a danger that the implementation of IA can return to a mechanistic approach, seeking clear indications of outcomes related to inputs. So I’d like to explore in a bit more detail how we can make those judgements, how to keep IA loose and flexible.

The third point I’d like to explore concerns the future – how do we build capacity to notice and respond to what emerges further down the line and build in the capacity to adapt? Equally, how do we work with the ‘authorising environment’ of ‘them’ (funders, northern governments, local stakeholders) that can allow this to happen. Otherwise we may just lock in the customised and locally-owned and designed processes that have emerged out of PDIA, but not embed ways to continually adapt/respond/customise into the future.

PDIA is a great tool and the book explains well the reasons why locally-driven, customised approaches which respond to local contexts are so important. But it suffers from the same problem of all tools which aim to work in the complex world; they can easily become mechanised and, if handled within a mindset still steeped in managerialist assumptions, and in power structures which still reward certainty and clear evidence, fail to make the step change to which they aspire. So let’s take the spirit of PDIA, keep asking and re-asking what actually is the problem, keep checking that solutions, one iterated don’t just get fixed and ‘scaled up’, and stay alive to adapting towards an emerging future.

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