Principles of PDIA

The BSC team uses the 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

Podcast

Learn more about how the Building State Capability program is being applied.

What is PDIA?

Recent Publications

Opening Adaptation Windows onto Public Financial Management Reform Gaps in Mozambique

Andrews, Matt, Tim McNaught, and Salimah Samji. 2018. “Opening Adaptation Windows onto Public Financial Management Reform Gaps in Mozambique”.Abstract

Governments across the world regularly pursue reforms that achieve less than was originally expected or is needed to make the state function better. The limits to reform success are often obvious in even the early days of reform, where gaps and weaknesses manifest. Many governments have no mechanisms built into their reform processes to see these gaps and weaknesses, however, and persist with predefined reform plans instead of adapting designs to close the gaps and address weaknesses. One antidote to this challenge is to create reflection points where reformers scrutinize their progress to identify weaknesses, reflect on these weaknesses, and adapt their next steps to address the weaknesses. In the spirit of John Kingdon’s work on ‘policy windows’, we call these reflection points ‘adaptation windows’—moments where reformers acknowledge problems in their reforms, adapt reforms to address such, and mobilize support for this adaptation. This paper discusses an effort to open an adaptation window for reformers to ‘see’ and then respond to public financial management (PFM) reform gaps and weaknesses in Mozambique. The paper details why and how this work was pursued, and also reflects on results of the government’s reflection at the adaptation window. 

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Enhancing Public Health Outcomes in Developing Countries: From Good Policies and Best Practices to Better Implementation

Woolcock, Michael. 2018. “Enhancing Public Health Outcomes in Developing Countries: From Good Policies and Best Practices to Better Implementation”.Abstract

In rich and poor countries alike, a core challenge is building the state’s capability for policy implementation. Delivering high-quality public health and health care – affordably, reliably, at scale, for all – exemplifies this challenge, since doing so requires deftly integrating refined technical skills (surgery), broad logistics management (supply chains, facilities maintenance), adaptive problem solving (curative care) and resolving ideological differences (who pays? who provides?), even as the prevailing health problems themselves only become more diverse, complex and expensive as countries become more prosperous.

The current state of state capability in developing countries, however, is demonstrably alarming, with the strains and demands only likely to intensify in the coming decades. Prevailing ‘best practice’ strategies for building implementation capability – copying and scaling putative successes from abroad – are too often part of the problem, while individual training (‘capacity building’) and technological upgrades (e.g., new management information systems) remain necessary but deeply insufficient. An alternative approach is outlined, one centered on building implementation capability by working iteratively to solve problems nominated and prioritized by local actors.

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Autonomous Reform vs Global Isomorphism: Explaining Iran’s Success in Reducing Fertility

Khandan, Masoomeh, and Lant Pritchett. 2018. “Autonomous Reform vs Global Isomorphism: Explaining Iran’s Success in Reducing Fertility”.Abstract
A long-standing literature in the sociology of organizations (e.g., DiMaggio and Powell 1983) suggests that, as change agents face uncertainty about actions and outcomes, they often seek legitimacy through isomorphism: adopting structures, policies and reforms similar (at least in appearance) to those deemed successful elsewhere. We examine history’s most rapid reduction of fertility—from 8.4 in 1985 to 2.4 in 2002, in rural Iran—as an example of successful autonomous reform. The Iranian state, which was self-consciously cut off from nearly all of the traditional vectors of global isomorphism, initiated a successful behavioral change in a domain (family planning) perhaps unexpected for an Islamic state. We describe and explain the Iranian approach, in particular the rural program, contrasting it with the global strategy of adopting universal "best practices."
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Learning to Improve the Investment Climate for Economic Diversification: PDIA in Action in Sri Lanka

Andrews, Matt, Duminda Ariyasinghe, Amara S. Beling, Peter Harrington, Tim McNaught, Fathima Nafla Niyas, Anisha Poobalan, et al. 2017. “Learning to Improve the Investment Climate for Economic Diversification: PDIA in Action in Sri Lanka”.Abstract
Many countries, like Sri Lanka, are trying to diversify their economies but often lack the
capabilities to lead diversification programs. One of these capabilities relates to preparing the investment climate in the country. Many governments tackle this issue by trying to improve their scores on ‘Doing Business Indicators’ which measure performance on general factors affecting business globally (like how long it takes to open a business or pay taxes). Beyond these common indicators, however, investors face context specific challenges when working in countries like Sri Lanka that are not addressed in global indicators. Governments often lack the capabilities to identify and resolve such issues. This paper narrates a recent initiative to establish these capabilities in Sri Lanka. The initiative adopted a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) process, where a team of Sri Lankan officials worked with Harvard Center for International Development (CID) facilitators to build capabilities over a six-month period. The paper tells the story of this process, providing documented evidence of the progress over time (and describing thinking behind the PDIA process as well). The paper will be of interest to those thinking about the challenges associated with creating a climate that is investor or business friendly and to those interested in processes (like PDIA) focused on building state capability and fostering policy implementation.
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Spotlight

PDIA in Practice Contributing to a Problem Driven Project in Mozambique

We are delighted to release the PDIA in Practice Series of short notes that describe where the PDIA tools and ideas have emerged from, and how these ideas have taken shape. This second note tells the story of a PDIA experiment we helped design in Mozambique from 2010 to 2013, and the problem construction, deconstruction and iteration processes it inspired.