Building State Capability: Review of an important (and practical) new book

Jetlag is a book reviewer’s best friend. In the bleary small hours in NZ and now Australia, I have been catching up on my reading. The latest was ‘Building

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State Capability’, by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock, which builds brilliantly on Matt’s 2013 book and the subsequent work of all 3 authors in trying to find practical ways to help reform state systems in dozens of developing countries (see the BSC website for more). Building State Capability is published by OUP, who agreed to make it available as an Open Access pdf, in part because of the good results with How Change Happens (so you all owe me….).

But jetlag was also poor preparation for the first half of this book, which after a promising start, rapidly gets bogged down in some extraordinarily dense academese. I nearly gave up during the particularly impenetrable chapter 4: sample ‘We are defining capability relative to normative objectives. This is not a reprisal of the “functionalist” approach, in which an organization’s capability would be defined relative to the function it actually served in the overall system.’ Try reading that on two hours’ sleep.

Luckily I stuck with it, because the second half of the book is an excellent (and much more accessible) manual on how to do Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation — the approach to institutional reform that lies at the heart of the BSC programme.

Part II starts with an analogy that then runs through the rest of the book. Imagine you want to go from St Louis to Los Angeles. How would you plan your journey? In modern America, it’s easy — car, map, driver and away you go. Now imagine it is 1804, no roads and the West had not even been fully explored. The task is the same (travel from East to West), but the plan would have to be totally different — parties of explorers going out seeking routes, periodic time outs to decide on the next stage, doing deals with native American leaders along the way, and constantly needing to send back for more money and equipment. Welcome to institutional reform processes in the real world. The trouble is, say the authors, too many would-be reformers are applying 2015 approaches to the 1804 world — in lieu of a map, they grab some best practice from one country and try to ‘roll it out’ in another. Not surprisingly, it seldom works — many country political systems look more like 1804 than 2015.

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The chapter that really got me excited was the one on the importance of problems. ‘Focussing relentlessly on solving a specific, attention-grabbing problem’ has numerous advantages over ‘best practice’, solution-driven cookie cutters:

  • Problems are often context specific and require you to pay sustained attention to real life, rather than toolkits
  • You can acknowledge the problem without pretending you have the solution — that comes through experimentation and will be different in each context
  • Exploring and winning recognition of the problem helps build the coalition of players you need to make change happen
  • Problems often become clear during a shock or critical juncture — just when windows of opportunity for change are likely to open up

The book offers great tips on how to dig into a problem and get to its most useful core — often people start off with a problem that is really just the absence of a solution (eg ‘we don’t have an anti-corruption commission’). The trick is to keep saying ‘why does this matter’ until you get to something specific that is a ‘real performance deficiency’. Then you can start to rally support for doing something about it.

The next stage is to break down the big problem into lots of small, more soluble ones. For each of these, the book recommends establishing the state of the ‘change space’ for reform, born of a set of factors they label the ‘triple A’: Authority (do the right people want things to change?), Acceptance (will those affected accept the reform?) and Ability (are the time, money and skills in place?). Where the 3 As are present, then the book recommends going for it, trying to get some quick wins to build momentum. Where they are not, then reformers face a long game to build the change space, before jumping into reform efforts.

In all this what is special is that the advice and ideas are born of actually trying to do this stuff in dozens of countries. The authorial combination of Harvard and the World Bank means governments are regularly beating a path to their door, as are students (BSC runs a popular — and free — online learning course on PDIA).

Another attractive feature is the effort to avoid this becoming some kind of kumbaya, let a hundred flowers bloom justification for people doing anything

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they fancy. To give comfort to bosses and funders, they propose a ‘searchframe’ to replace the much-denounced logframe. This establishes a firm and rapid timetable of ‘iteration check-ins’ where progress is assessed and new ideas or tweaks to the existing ones are introduced.

Finally a chapter on ‘Managing your Authorizing Environment’ is a great effort at showing reformers how to do an internal power analysis within their organizations, and come up with an internal theory of change on how to build and maintain support for reforms.

That chapter got me thinking about the book’s relevance to INGOs. It is explicitly aimed elsewhere — at reforming state systems, but people in NGOs, who often work at a smaller scale than the big reform processes discussed in the book, could learn a lot, particularly from the chapters on problem definition and the authorizing environment. Oxfam has been going through a painful and drawn out process to integrate the work of 20 different Oxfam affiliates, known as ‘Oxfam 2020’. I wonder what would have happened if we had signed up the 3 PDIA kings to advise on how to run it?