The Building State Capability (BSC) program at the Center for International Development (CID) at Harvard University researches new strategies and tactics to build the capability of public organizations to execute and implement.

The BSC program is exploring the potential of a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, which rests on four core principles:

local solutions for local problems
pushing problem driven positive deviance
try, learn iterate, adapt
scale through diffusion

Recent Publications

The Big Stuck in State Capability for Policy Implementation

Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. Working Paper. “The Big Stuck in State Capability for Policy Implementation”.Abstract

We divide the 102 historically developing countries (HDCs) into those with ‘very weak’, ‘weak’, ‘middle’, and ‘strong’ state capability. Analyzing the levels and recent growth rates of the HDCs’ capability for policy implementation reveals how pervasively “stuck” most of them are.

Only eight HDCs have attained strong capability, and since most of these are small (e.g., Singapore, UAE), less than 100 million (or 1.7%) of the roughly 5.8 billion people in HDCs currently live in high capability states.

Almost half (49) of these countries have very weak or weak capability, and thus their long-run pace of acquiring capability is also very slow.

Alarmingly, three quarters of these countries (36 of 49) have experienced negative growth in state capability in recent decades, while more than a third of all countries (36 of 102) have low and (in the medium run at least) deteriorating state capability.

At current rates, the ‘time to high capability’ of the 49 currently weak capability states and the 36 with negative growth is obviously “forever”. But even for the 13 with positive growth, only three would reach strong capability by the end of the 21st century at their current medium run growth.

Scaling PDIA Solutions through Broad Agency, and Your Role

Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. Working Paper. “Scaling PDIA Solutions through Broad Agency, and Your Role”.Abstract

Many development challenges are complex, involving a lot of different agents and with unknown dimensions. Solutions to these challenges are often unknown, and contextually dependent. At the same time, there are political imperatives at play in many contexts which create pressure to ‘find the solution now…and then scale it up.’ Such pressure raises a question: how does a policy entrepreneur or reformer find a new solution and scale it up when dealing with complexity? This is the subject we address in the current paper, which is the fifth in a series on ‘how to’ do problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) (Andrews et al. 2015, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c).

The paper focuses on building broad agency solutions in the process of identifying problems and finding and fitting contextually appropriate solutions. The broad agency is, in our opinion, a most effective mechanism to ensure scaling and dynamic sustainability in the change process. As with other working papers on this topic, the contents here do not offer all answers to those asking questions about how to do development effectively. It closes by reflecting on the importance of ‘you’ (the reader, and ostensibly part of a policy change or reform team somewhere) using this and the other ideas as heuristics to rethink and reorient how you work—but with your own signature on each idea.

Managing Your Authorizing Environment in a PDIA Process

Andrews, Matt, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. 2016. “Managing Your Authorizing Environment in a PDIA Process”.Abstract

Development and state building processes are about change. Change is, however, elusive in many contexts. In prior work, we have offered problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as an approach to tackle wicked hard change challenges. This is our fourth practical working paper on ‘how’ to do PDIA. The working paper addresses questions about authority, given that authority is needed to make change happen—especially in hierarchical government settings. This authority is often difficult to attain, however. It is seldom located in one office of person, and is often harder to lock-in with complex challenges, given that they commonly involve significant risk and uncertainty and require engagement by many agents responding to different kinds of authority. Every effort must be taken to address such challenges, and efforts should include an explicit strategy to establish an appropriate authorizing environment. This working paper suggests ideas to adopt in this strategy, with practical exercises and examples to help the reader apply such ideas in her or his own work.

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