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From Form to Function of Government


July 19, 2013


What You See is Not What You Get

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Professor Matt Andrews in his book Limits of Institutional Reform and in his Leaders in Development executive education course describes how governments leverage so-called Public Financial Management (PFM) “best practices” to look good. In other words: to provide the façade of progress. To satisfy the international community, especially donors.

Of course, the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) are not engaged in some conspiracy to prop up government fashion. It’s not an attempt to pass polyester as if it was cotton. 

Andrews describes reform as a “journey of development.” Countries that progressed to become highly developed did not achieve reform overnight. These countries saw the function of government modernize, not just the form. Therefore, reform should be contextually specific. And, the international community should progress from looking at the form of government by looking at real outcomes.

The form is government is something ready-made. Andrews points out that donor interventions are designed to make a “State” look like States look like.

These good faith interventions often create odd incentives based on outputs. Andrews points out Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 for  education: to achieve universal primary education. The first 2 of 3 indicators are:

2.1 Net enrolment ratio in primary education
2.2 Proportion of pupils starting grade 1 who reach last grade of primary

Many countries have achieved increases in MDG 2. But, the number of children in school has increased in many countries without teachers, schools, textbooks or pencils. Which is somewhat ironic when you think that the logo for the MDG shows pencils rather than more children stuffed into seats with few learning resources. Andrews explains how Brazil tackled this phenomenon.

The message is that development “best practices” are called this because they are easily measured. (That’s an indicator of the huge problem with measuring government performance compared to the private sector.)

As an end-note, it is always struck me as interesting that one of the PFM standards/best practices recommended to governments is the support for the United Nations Classification of the Functions of Government (COFOG). Why? It’s a typical public sector acronym – more than 3 characters and with an unintentional hidden message – “fog”. And, it’s more about reporting the functions of government rather than managing these functions.

The origin of the term "what you see is what you get" comes from comedian Flip Wilson with his Geraldine character.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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