Thursday, June 23, 2016

Smell test for why "this time is any different"

It is commonplace for new governments and policy makers across developing countries to claim that they have a plan to address complex social problems - learning outcomes, sanitation, financial inclusion, improve health care, increase agricultural productivity and so on - whose resolution have elided their predecessors for decades. 

Almost always such intent comes wrapped in the form of a more vigorous profession of commitment and a new program, the primary differentiator most often being the scale of the ambition in terms of targets and time within which it is sought to be achieved. This alone, supporters tend to believe, would ensure success of the endeavor.

I am not sure. Instead, I'll go by a two-part smell test to assess whether this time is any different.  

1. What is being done now that was not part of earlier efforts and how will it increase the likelihood that this time is different?

2. What has been done to improve state capability in the execution of the program?

It is most likely that a vast majority of public policy interventions in these areas by governments across the world would fail the two part smell test. Development is really hard.


Kailash Karthik said...

Sir to clear that test governments would need discipline, patience and resolve. In a multi party federal democracy like ours, when national parties are constantly in Election mode - considering some Election somewhere is on every few months - are there incentives for them to show the discipline, be patient etc? Public wants to see rapid changes and hence governments "show" them!

Anonymous said...

Hiring consultants and discussion on power-points will not answer these questions. This will provide more business opportunities for those who consider government as a client.

The easiest way to survive these test. Smaller programs. One issue at a time.

Karthik Dinne said...

Coincidentally there's new TED talk on initiatives in last 1 year in school education in Haryana which is being claimed to be a success.

Curious to know your thoughts - both applying the smell test discussed in this post and also your old post on "glossing over state capability deficiencies" Maybe a blgopost on the same

Looking forward

Gulzar Natarajan said...

Thanks for all the comments. Kailash, I think governments should have a conscious optics track and substantive change track with each reform agenda and with the basket of reforms itself. For example, while the headlines keep talking about the success of the financial inclusion initiative, let the Department get into the challenges of utilization and other last mile challenges. Sadly, most often, the former (optics and cosmetic efforts) crowd out the latter.

Anon, yes, no consultant will even take us close to getting know the solutions. But even with large programs and several of them simultaneously, allow for local discretion and iteration and let many implementation designs take hold. The last mile is where a lot of these initiatives fail.

Karthik, thanks for the link. I've not seen it. But I'm usually sceptical of such grandiose claims (how_to_fix_a_broken_education_system_without_any_more_money!), and I've rarely ever come across such "fixes" on any public issue. The worst thing with such models is that people then try to "replicate" these successes and that we know rarely works.