My blogs so far suggest that there is a growing governance gap created from many governance reforms. This is largely because reforms introduce best practice formal interventions that ultimately are not implemented. I suggest we should do things differently. What does that mean? Today I suggest a basic first step: ensuring reforms are 'wanted' by constituencies that have to do the implementation. Note I am not talking about 'ownership' in some vague sense. 'Want' is more direct, focused, immediate. And the underlying story with many governance reforms is that they are not wanted by those required to ultimately implement the change. For good reasons.
Let me frame this idea with a short story and then get to the point, and some ideas on generating 'want' in a reform context.
The story is about adopting international accounting standards. These are an important 'best practice' element of the good governance and doing business regimes. Developing countries are encouraged to adopt them, with multilaterals and bilaterals sponsoring projects focused on such in locales across the less affluent parts of earth.
Mir and Rahaman write about the adoption of international accounting standards (IAS) in Bangladesh (http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1528645&show=pdf).
They describe “evidence of immense pressure that major international donor/lending institutions put on the Bangladeshi government and professional accounting bodies to adopt IASs not only to provide credibility to foreign investors but also ensure that accountability arrangements with lending/donor agencies are tight enough. Clearly, the government and other institutions in Bangladesh have very little option (if any at all) because of the country's high dependence on aid…[even though]… a wholesale adoption of IASs constitutes a quick-fix that may not necessarily be in the long-term interest of Bangladesh and its accounting institutions.”
The description raises an important question of whether (and how regularly) donor insistence on best practice reform undermines local ownership--and the process of local problem solving and solution finding. Other descriptions in the story tie such questions to additional concerns about how well these imposed reforms are eventually implemented. The authors note that, "The perceived undemocratic nature of the adoption process appears to be creating and enhancing conflict among various constituencies, resulting in very low compliance with these standards."
The gap that these authors identify--between an imposed best practice reform design and an ultimate practice emerging from such--seems to emerge partly because the process of finding and fitting solutions is bypassed in favor of a solution coming from other countries. In their paper, the authors note that one reason this kind of imposed solution fails is simply that it is seen as being from the outside...emergent from an external community and not in response to local problems and through locally legitimate processes. They are not wanted internally, by the folks who ultimately have to implement and use them, digest them, allow them to interrupt their day-to-day work, change the way they think and contract and value things.
It reminds me of Richard Rose's admonition that reforms should involve “relevant” practices instead of “best” practices, where “Relevant practices are both politically acceptable and within the resources of government.” He argues that, “While relevance is no guarantee of a programme’s success, it avoids the certainty of failure due to the promotion of programmes that governments do not want or lack the resources to implement.”
While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Mir and Rahaman's view that IAS adoption is failing in Bangladesh because it is unwanted by implementers, the story rings true enough to reproduce it. And in the story I see lessons for doing governance reform better--making it 'relevant' in the words of Richard Rose.
First, instead of focusing on reproducing solutions, reforms should emphasize solving problems. The literature on change regularly emphasizes the importance of problems, crises and the like as motivatorsof change. Agents generally do not want change but can get to a 'want' position if they see that the change is needed to alleviate a threat, solve a problem, assist their survival, maybe even make them perform better.
Second, do no support reform design processes that lead to quick, lazy, narrowly engaged plucking of external best practices as the logical solution. If you want to implement a reform you need to spend time finding a solution that fits the context. This requires engaging with those who will implement, having them contribute to a shared understanding of why reform is needed and a shared process of experimenting with local ideas and scanning the globe for 'relevant' ideas. The process of finding and fitting is absolutely vital if one truly wants an implemented reform. This process is the only way one gets a clear perspective on political realities (not possible through an externally written political economy analysis) and local capacities to implement.
Third, create a high hurdle for external 'best practice' ideas to clear before adopting them. Evidence suggests that best practice ideas travel well from place to place where they are contextualized. Rose describes this as being "altering the original model to operate in a different administrative and political setting” noting that, “When altering a prototype, policymakers are not abandoning what they have learned from better practices elsewhere; they are applying a lesson learned elsewhere in ways relevant in their own national setting.” Some basic questions should always be asked where a best practice is being reproduced: What is the lesson learned elsewhere that you are replicating? How has the practice been altered to match your political realities? How has the practice been altered to match your administrative realities? This requires having a theory about the best praxctice (understanding what it is, and how it works) and being able to see if that theory works in your context--what the literature calls 'theorization'.
These three steps require that external agents take a very different perspective on the reforms they introduce. It requires a change in focus from (i) ready-made solutions to sticky and under-understood problems, (ii) quick answers with narrow groups to longer processes of asking questions in broader constituences, and (iii) easy acceptance of best practices to more skepticism about whether best practices are relevant. I am sure these ideas will not guarantee success, but as Rose says, they will help avoid certainty of failure when it comes to implementing reforms people just do not want.
What do you think?