Systems change is the buzzword in development today. The presumption is that wicked problems in development cannot be solved with piecemeal projects, however innovative, and demand simultaneous system-wide interventions to change both processes and behaviours and attitudes.
While I am in agreement with the need to reform systems to realise truly sustainable change and the desired development outcomes, I am less sanguine about its prospects. For a start, there are truly very few examples of such changes from any country. Two, I think very few stakeholders actually appreciate what it takes to realise system-wide change.
The danger with such efforts is that it can get sucked into a rabbit hole with the strong likelihood of little to show for even after a reasonable period of experimentation. We know what a good system looks like and maybe its ingredient elements but know very little about the relative importance associated with each element much less how to get there.
Take the example of systems change in bureaucracies. It would involve having in place attributes like goal clarity, motivated officials, systemic appetite for change, performance accountability, guidance and monitoring systems, stable leadership, and political and bureaucratic commitment. Addressing each one of these is a challenge in itself and we know very little about how to achieve that. Further, creating an objective function of all these to assess their relative importance would be almost God-like. Compounding problems, this transformation has to be achieved in an environment of acutely weak state capacity.
The only practical response to this problem is to start somewhere promising, a minimum viable product (MVP), and opportunistically engage very actively to steer the course. The starting point is therefore very critical and has to be a powerful enough lever with potential to trigger off system-wide ripples as well as be ripe enough in time to for the change momentum to be strong enough.
Once the starting point is identified, the next step is to figure out the pathways to change. In the context of developing countries like India, I can think of at least four pathways to change.
1. Positive deviances effect - Spot champions of change at a reasonably small but systemically important enough level and support them to emerge as positive deviances. This is a two-dimensional exercise - identify appropriate level, and spot champions - which require the deepest contextual and systemic understanding. Once we have a small sample of such champions out there, one can only hope that some of them are replaced by equally good successors and the reforms have enough time to stick.
The whole e-governance eco-system in India can trace its origins to several positive deviances, both on use-cases as well as work-flow innovations, that emerged over the early noughties across districts of India. Over time the best features of different positive deviances got consolidated to form robust e-governance solutions across the entire spectrum of development activities.
Globally, the use of PPPs in infrastructure contracting has evolved gradually through the emulation of positive deviances in different types of contracting structures and across different sectors, especially in UK, Canada, Australia, and Latin America. Resources like the World Bank's PPIAF have helped enormously in consolidating the learnings and providing resources which interested parties could take off the shelf and use with minimal customisation.
2. Anchor interventions - Given the amorphous nature of what is required to realise system transformation, it is useful to have a clear and actionable starting point. Technology platforms (and not solutions) - by consolidating data and making available actionable information as decision-support and monitoring system, and which can be used to gradually build out modules covering other use-cases - are good examples of likely anchor interventions.
For example, India's Swachh Bharat Mission or Smart Cities programs are good examples of anchors for systemic changes on sanitation and urbanisation. Similarly, the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) in improving business environment and National Assessment Survey (NAS) and School Education Quality Index (SEQI) in improving learning outcomes are other good examples. But as all these show, the anchors by themselves are no good without good execution and opportunistic engagement to attract and integrate other elements of system transformation as we go along.
3. Mutations - Another way to realise systemic change is through sudden regime shifts which replace legacies - new rules of the game, new personnel, new entities, new political regimes etc. They are essentially mutations which cannot be planned for, though one could work actively to create the conditions for them. The more wicked and universal the problem, the greater the difficulty of having this pathway to change.
The Indian Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) is a recent example of how a mutation can trigger the emergence of conditions that aligns incentives of lenders and borrowers to create a strong bankruptcy and resolution environment. The most prominent examples of such mutations over the past three decades are China's and India's liberalisation, the collapse of the Communist regimes etc.
4. Cumulative effect - Finally, things just happen. In such cases it is difficult to attribute the change to any proximate causes but more likely the cumulative effect of several diffuse factors over a long period of time. The problem with such changes is that not only can it be planned but also once the change happens it is unlikely to have champions ready to lead the change.
For example, the shift in the debate from inputs to learning outcomes in India over the past 3-4 years does not have any immediate cause. It has been the cumulative result of several factors, the most prominent being the receding importance of inputs and the growing salience of poor learning outcomes and its adverse impact on productivity and economic growth. But the cumulative nature of the change has also meant that the agenda on what and how to move to addressing deficient learning outcomes has remained still-born and without any champions to lead it.
It is also the case that many changes are path dependent - the change requires traversing the path of exhausting alternative options and demonstrating their inadequacy or failure, thereby creating the conditions for acceptability of the desired change element. This is the political reality of any system. In fact, in many cases the desired change elements themselves emerge only as we progress with implementation.
Take the example of focus on access and inputs in case of health and education. In the absence of buildings, teachers, and student attendance, focusing on quality could not have been a bureaucratic of political imperative. Or without the difficult experience and struggles of (and memory thereof) having done engineering works through government agencies, it would be impossible for systems to embrace PPPs contracts and concessions. Or of austerity, despite the knowledge of near certain suffering and damage, invariably preceding expansionary policies since the moral hazard concerns in its absence are considered to be prohibitive. Or the political will to embrace delegation of power requires a history of failure with centralised administration.
One would have noticed that I have not mentioned evidence as a pathway to significant change in case of complex development challenges. Its role lies more in being one of the many contributors to creating the conditions required for systemic change. By itself, I cannot think of any evidence (or even a set of consciously created evidences) having been significant proximate contributors to triggering decisions that led to transformative systemic changes.
Actually presence of right people at the right place at the right moment in time - or Overton windows - is perhaps the most important requirement to realise systemic transformations. Funny that in this age of evidence-based policy making, very little of development thinking and engagement goes in this direction.
Each of these pathways to change are not mutually exclusive and they often co-exist and get strengthened by association of some or all of others.
As a note of caution, while I can now think of only these four factors, it is entirely likely that there are other pathways to change. Further, while the post is likely to be relevant in most country contexts, I have written it from the perspective of system change in India.
In another post, I shall focus on the distinction between leader's personality-induced perception of systems transformation and real systems transformation.