Figure from Michel Martone's blog, "We are all Outsiders" http://www.michelmartone.org/we-are-all-outsiders-367.html. Not directly relevant to this posting, but provocative nonetheless.
Whenever I return from work in a developing country and speak of the engagements 'we' had with 'them' my wife asks...'who are we' and 'who are they'. Pesky questions. They always remind me that no matter how much I may try to make it different, I am an external agent in the change processes I aim to help move ahead. My guess is that anyone reading this blog is an external player as well.
External agents have played important roles in defining the governance agenda we all speak about. Indicators of good governance emerged from discussions external to those governments--by external agents. Projects to introduce good governance are typically hatched externally as well. Some external agents are easy to identify. IMF staffers in their men in black suits stand out the most. World Bank specialists sometimes try to blend in with less formal attire and a more 'I'm one of you' approach (count me as one of these). They also end up sitting at the other side of the bargaining table when work heats up, though.
I discussed the role of external agents in policy reform with my MPAID class yesterday. We had a great discussion about whether anyone in the room of soon-to-be-Harvard-trained specialists could call themselves insiders. Are you an insider if you work for the government of a country as an outsider? Does a Harvard grad become an insider if she goes back to her government?
Does it matter?
Let me leave the questions about what constitutes an external agent to future debate, but give some thoughts on if it matters here. The thoughts are not mine. They come from a group of education scholars at Berkeley, Cynthia Coburn, Soung Bae, and Erica Turner. They investigated the way an urban school district engaged over time with a university research center in fostering institutional change. The findings are in an interesting piece titled, "Authority, Status, and the Dynamics of Insider-Outsider Partnerships at the District Level."
They found that external engagements can create problems of authority internally. External agents, it seems, can inject ambiguity into authorizing structures if they try to engage as internal agents. The authors argue that external agents should have clear relational links that do not undermine internal authority structures--a traditional consulting contract and engagement, for instance.
They differentiate between the authority insiders have in facilitating change and the 'status' effect of outsiders. External agents, it appears, get listened to if insiders think they have status. This can be gained through academic position (frequently the case...hence students in my MPAID class) but the authors note that experience may matter more. If external agents want to influence internal change they should ask what their 'status' is built on--and a foundation of experience is more valuable than one of book knowledge.
The third finding they elaborate is that the influence of external agents--outsiders, put bluntly--is dependent on organizational structures in the entity undergoing change, and the point of entry the external agent enjoys. External agents have limited influence where they introduce ideas at the top of the organization but authority and communication structures downwards are loose or poorly developed. Similarly, external agents have limited impact where they engage at the bottom of an organization structure and these inside agents have limited upwards authority or influence. So, it matters who the external agents engage with--and how these agents are connected and authorized internally. If you work in a small policy making unit as an external specialist, don't assume your work influences the operational folk. Your organization may be a peripheral player internally (I often refer, probably unfairly, to the 'legal department' in a private firm as an example).
Finally, the authors argue that external agents are most likely to influence change on the inside when their ideas reflect those of the insiders. External agents do not have the authority to introduce change. Their influence depends on whether they are able to use their status to persuade insiders with authority that their ideas make sense. This makes radical change coming from outside an organization difficult. As the authors note, "This suggests that in the absence of shared beliefs about the direction for the collaborative work, those with status may face considerable difficulty if they attempt to promote approaches that diverge substantially from those approaches that are valued by those in positions of authority [internally]."
What conclusions can I draw for governance work?
First, many of us may have status and good ideas, but we do not have authority to change the organizations. governments and countries we work in. It matters that we are we and they are they. We are not them. And they are more important to change than us.
Sseocnd, there is a question as to whether those we as outsiders engage with on the inside have authority, given extant political and organizational structures. Do we have entry points with legs?
Third, there is also more than a question as to whether those with real authority internally agree with our ideas and have a shared belief in why reform is needed and what it should look like. This could be the primary reason why we are pretty limited in engaging with ideas and projects based on these ideas. Indeed, the constant effort by external agents to push best practice (externally defined), indicator-based reform is prone to have limited effects (and create gaps...).
What do you think? Should external agents in the IMF, World Bank, bilaterals, WFP, etc. re-think their roles? If so, how?