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Country Development, It’s Complicated? No, It’s Complex

 

November 25, 2014

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Are checklists the new new thing for aid and development? The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawand provides a strong case to handle complicated technology such as aircraft and passenger safety. This is a compelling idea for many in the development community. The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development by Matt Andrews makes the case that development is complex. Complex is more complicated than complicated.

What’s the difference?

Complicated problems can be solved through integrating technical solutions such as pilot training, aircraft maintenance procedures, air traffic control and airport safety. Although financial incentives may cause a stakeholder to reduce safety measures, there aren’t active stakeholders attempting to make passengers less safe. Yet, there are many stakeholders in a governance project attempting to do so – politicians, public servants, political parties, businesses, NGOs etc. There are perverse incentives and significant fear of change. And, there’s cultural values and human capacity.

Andrews gives students at his Harvard Kennedy School Leaders in Development executive course plenty of  hands-on examples, including use Lego and paper airplanes to demonstrate constraints. Particularly the constraint of brilliantly designed projects that follow best practices – and then needs to be implemented with limited resources.

It’s likely that a solution to improve airline safety in one country will help in another. This is the comfortable realm of “best practices.” It is far less likely that a solution that improved governance in one country will work in a different country. For example, a delegation from an Asian country to Canada wanted to know what  the incentive for the Receiver General of Canada to share information with the Treasury Board Secretariat. I often tell Public Financial Management professionals in developing countries that public sector “best practices” are advanced practices designed to solve problems you don’t have.

Doing Development Differently

Rather than a portfolio of technical solutions, a relatively new practice of Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), seeks to focus on problems and context. This enables handling complex problems that involves persuasion, culture changes and adapting solutions to meet the local context. And, it’s now a movement.

There’s a manifesto that you can support.

And, it’s not the latest checklist/best practice.

Complicated – Complex Continuum

FreeBalance provides Government Resource Planning (GRP) software in developing countries. We have had good success in meeting government goals, better than alternative methods. GRP systems are closer to the complicated side of the complicated/complex continuum, in my opinion. It’s a lot more complex to achieve sustainable and measurable government improvements. It’s relatively simple to pass an anti-corruption law. The GRP can be used to enable oversight, but that oversight may never happen without significant work that can include reforming public service pay scales and improving civil society capacity, depending on the context.

The implementation of FreeBalance is closer to “complicated” than “complex”. However, the implementation of a custom-developed Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) is closer to complex because of the added need to design for the future and create a software company infrastructure. Leveraging systems requires fundamental behavioural changes and is a complex challenge. A country can look good with an Open Government Partnership strategy and implementing information systems. This “looking good” approach does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes, although somewhat necessary to enable these outcomes. The tyranny of best practices can often delay “good enough” (or “good practices” for the context), legislation, information systems and capacity building.

The lesson:

  1. Focus on the problem
  2. Iterate solutions based on the problem
  3. Identify whether the proposed solutions are “complicated” or “complex”
  4. Use “good practices” to implement complicated solutions
  5. Adapt to complex situations
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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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