When I think of governance contexts, I think of institutions--what we call 'rules of the game'. I think that anyone working on reforms in developing countries (or developed countries) should have a thorough appreciation of these rules of the game.
In speaking of institutions, people commonly refer to one of a number of things: formal regulative mechanisms like laws (that influence how people behave through extrinsic means), norms (that shape choices by offering intrinsic rewards when individuals do what they see as appropriate), and cultural-cognitive devices (that influence how groups think and include one's nationality or religion).
In development there is a bias (I believe) to seeing institutions as either laws, or norms, or cultural-cognitive devices.
I think that rules of the game are not one of these concepts alone, but rather take shape when you have an amalgamation of all three. I also believe that norms and cultural-cognitive devices are more deeply embedded than regulative mechanisms like laws, and hence provide the foundation necessary for rules to have an effect. People must think in a way that supports laws and deem the regulative devices appropriate before they adhere to such.
The problem is that cultural-cognitive devices and normative mechanisms are often informal and difficult to see--so they are frequently taken for granted when outsiders look at a country or government's context. These outsiders just look at the laws in place, and prescribe reforms accordingly. In the case of Malawi I started talking about last month, development experts thought that corruption festered because of a lack of formal anti-corruption laws and a formal anti-corruption agency. In reality, there are deeply embedded norms and cultural cognitive devices that underscore decisions in the country (and have fostered corruption for decades). The new laws and agency cannot work when these foundations are in place (which helps explain why the new laws and agency have not been as succesful as many would like).
My approach is stolen from people like Richard Scott, and sees institutions as something like icebergs: with formal regulative devices that all can see and less visible normative and cultural cognitive foundations (lying below the water line). If one fails to see the foundations when crafting a reform, the reform could end up crashing like the Titanic!
Below is the figure I use in my forthcoming book, of institutions as icebergs. Makes me wonder what the iceberg behind Greece's fiscal profligacy looks like (and if the foundations support new fiscal rules and austerity measures)?
- Anyone reading about the last few years' worth of diagnostics should see that there is very little attention to the informal political norms and cognitive frameworks underpinning Greek government (http://blog-pfm.imf.org/pfmblog/2008/07/budget-reform-i.html).
- They should also see that reform advice is always the same-"introduce better laws, better formal procedures, new offices, etc."
- Unfortunately results seem similar over time as well...limited change. I know we have a big crisis in place now, but is this enough to make us think change will be greater this time around?
I also wonder what kind of iceberg foundations lie behind the US government's current budgeting woes. For all those advocating fiscal rules, balanced budget amendments, etc. in the USA I ask: What are the cultural-cognitive and normative rules of the game that have routinely undermined discipline? For those who blame the President, I ask: Who is really responsible, formally and informally, for bringing out the budget and bringing down spending?
- Are we paying enough attention to the deeply embedded contradictions that lie in the way people in this country think about government, and how this complicates budget management ("we want an exceptional government but also one that is limited";"we want power distributed across different parts of government, but also want to hold the president accountable when things go wrong";"we want our representatives to bring home the bacon and serve our districts, but we don't want to pay more taxes"). See my article on the "illogics of federal budgeting". http://faculty.cbpp.uaa.alaska.edu/afgjp/PADM601%20Fall%202011/(Il)logics%20of%20Federal%20Budgeting.pdf
The same kinds of questions could be asked of reforms in all developing countries, and governance more generally:
- What normative and cultural cognitive mechanisms are in place in the contexts we try to introduce reforms into?
- Are the icebergs in these contexts going to sink our reforms?
- Do differences in iceberg foundations make our good governance prescriptions harmful in many contexts? (where norms and cultural-cognitive devices do not support formal governance mechanisms promoted as 'good', 'better' or 'best'?)
- Should we be more modest in proposing solutions when it is almost guaranteed that we don't understand the contextual underpinnings of the problems at hand or the difficulties of change that will emerge?
- How could we do reform better than we currently do, given the opaqueness of contextual realities, and preexisting rules of the game?