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

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Core Principles

The BSC team uses the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach, which rests on four core principles:

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



What is PDIA?

Recent Publications

Public policy actors view success differently, and it matters

Literature tells us there are many dimensions of public policy success, and different actors in the policy process will likely focus on different dimensions. This paper asks how different actors in the policy process view policy success, and how much their views differ. It finds evidence that actors devising policy plans— designers—view success narrowly, as achieving near-term, programmed goals; whereas other actors involved in advocating for, authorizing, and implementing policies have a broader success perspective, paying more attention to non-program criteria like long-term impact, distributional and endurance success, and intertemporal gains that manifest in the way policies grow capability, political support, stakeholder satisfaction, and process legitimacy. Such finding raises a question about how policy objectives are determined when actors disagree, given that literature also tells us that policies are more likely to succeed when actors agree on what success is and how to achieve it.

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What is public policy success, especially in development?

Public policy work is hard, especially when one works in developing countries. It is even difficult to define what success looks like, and thus how to manage towards success. Literature helps manage such difficulty, providing studies that define the concept and show how it can be achieved. A core message from such is that success is multi-dimensional, and practitioner need to focus on multiple criteria when doing their policy work. But what dimensions and criteria matter? And do development practitioners really adopt this multi-dimensional view? Tackling such questions, the current paper reviews 45 applied studies from the public policy, project management and development evaluation literatures to see what they identify as key success criteria and if the practical studies (about development evaluation) are in sync with the more academic messages. Reading across all three literatures, I identify 30 potential success criteria in 6 categories or dimensions (program, impact and endurance, capability, political, stakeholder, and process). I find that the development evaluation literature focuses on a narrow set of 7 criteria, mostly in one dimension (program success) as compared to broader perspectives in the other literatures. This suggests that development practitioners have a narrow view on success, which is out of step with academic views on the topic. A conclusion proposes a broader approach for these practitioners.
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This is How to Think About and Achieve Public Policy Success

Officials working on public policies must answer questions like ‘What does policy success mean?’ and ‘How should I pursue policy work in order to achieve success?’ These are difficult questions, but there are ways to respond. One way draws on what I call the program logic of policy success, which suggests that: (i) Success requires efficiently meeting goals that stakeholders view as relevant, (ii) by doing work focused on impacting high-level objectives through programs that deliver promised time-sensitive outputs and outcomes according to a clear, logical plan. I believe this logic dominates the global public policy community, as ‘the way’ officials and organizations should think about and do policy work. This paper tests such belief, showing that officials do think in this way and that this thinking is influenced by common budgeting and evaluation mechanisms. I conclude by asking if this way of thinking poses any concerns, especially if it biases policy organizations to produce some kinds of policy success and not others.
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Getting Real about Unknowns in Complex Policy Work

As with all public policy work, education policies are demanding. Policy workers need to ‘know’ a lot—about the problems they are addressing, the people who need to be engaged, the promises they can make in response, the context they are working in, and the processes they will follow to implement. Most policy workers answer questions about such issues within the structures of plan and control processes used to devise budgets and projects. These structures limit their knowledge gathering, organization and sense-making activities to up-front planning activities, and even though sophisticated tools like Theories of Change suggest planners ‘know’ all that is needed for policy success, they often do not. Policies are often fraught with ‘unknowns’ that cannot be captured in passive planning processes and thus repeatedly undermine even the best laid plans. Through a novel strategy that asks how much one knows about the answers to 25 essential policy questions, and an application to recent education policy interventions in Mozambique, this paper shows that it is possible to get real about unknowns in policy work. Just recognizing these unknowns exist—and understanding why they do and what kind of challenge they pose to policy workers—can help promote a more modest and realistic approach to doing complex policy work.
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More Publications

PDIA Toolkit

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