“Wicked hard problems” and isomorphic what?

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      Lant Pritchett, a Harvard University Professor, was the keynote speaker at the OECD Development Centre's 50th anniversary conference in Paris last week. In his presentation he summarised a few simple insights that are helpful for understanding how and where policy reforms might have more impact.

      One idea he discussed was that of "isomorphic mimicry" - basically, in the natural world when something takes on the appearance of another thing on the outside, but without necessarily having any of the underlying characteristics. According to Prichett, donors and governments engage in this kind of camouflage too often: they take institutional reforms from elsewhere and although these bear a resemblance in formal terms, there is little in terms of substance as they fail to reflect the full original set of institutions. So it is “de facto” versus “de jure” institutions, or “function” versus “form”.

      For anyone who has worked in a developing country, the fact that governments adopt policies and strategies, often with very little real change occurring is nothing new - it's basically the "implementation deficit", or saying that you'll do things without then actually doing them. In some cases this may be unintentional, although in many cases it is strategic - a memorable description of this kind of thing was given by The Economist some years ago:

      "Over the past few years, Kenya has performed a curious mating ritual with its aid donors. The steps are: One, Kenya wins its yearly pledges of foreign aid. Two, the government begins to misbehave, backtracking on economic reform and behaving in an authoritarian manner. Three, a new meeting of donor countries looms with exasperated foreign governments preparing their sharp rebukes. Four, Kenya pulls a placatory rabbit out of the hat. Five, the donors are mollified and aid is pledged. The whole dance then starts again." (The Economist, 19 August 1995).

      So calling it “isomorphic mimicry” is really just putting a name to something we all recognise when we see it. Nonetheless, maybe by putting a name to it, it can help us to think more clearly about the distinction between superficial policy appearance and actual policy substance.

      Its about policy species

      Pritchett also presented a second idea: a classification of types of policy problems. To simplify a little, instead of lumping together policy issues by their sector, target audience or some other common, he distinguishes between different types of policy reform according to the number of face-to-face transactions required between “implementer” and “beneficiary” for the policy to be implemented. That is, where the “transaction intensity” between individuals is low, and there is less room for subjectivity or negotiation, it is generally easier to implement a policy.

      He also highlighted the importance of the degree of discretion involved in implementing a specific policy; whether or not there is a “known technology” for doing it, i.e. whether or not somebody has to innovate; and whether the stakes are high in terms of whether or not the policy is indeed implemented. Judging policy reforms against these criteria are then likely to give us a more refined understanding of different policy types, and how to really make things work.

      Although there are a range of possible policy types, the main extremes are what he calls "implementation light" problems, that is getting vaccines to patients, or building schools; to far more complicated ("wicked hard"!) problems such as tax collection. Here the number of face to face transactions are high, there is some subjectivity involved in determining the tax payable, and the stakes are high, so there is far more room for things to go astray. Prichett’s view is that performance has been relatively good on the former type of problems, and weaker on the latter, precisely because of their nature.

      While this is also actually a pretty simple idea, it is nonetheless a useful insight: we often fail to think properly about the requirements for certain policy reforms to be successfull based on the wrong assumption that all policy reforms are more or less the same. Perhaps, then, such a way of classifying policies can help us in taking the steps to try and turn some of these trickier, high-transactions policies into more manageable bits. That is, in taxation more benefits may emerge from reducing personal contact in filing tax returns, much as can happen with greater electronic filing; while this is also part of the attraction of flat taxes, although this then must be weighed against other impacts.

      But what we usually think about when we talk of policy implementation failure these days is political economy. More and more is being written about how a better understanding of context, actors, their history and motivation can help understand why governments agree to certain policy reforms and then fail to implement. (A whole bibliography of readings is available , while a recent paper pointed out by Lee Crawfurd summarises the issues.) The implication is that by understanding underlying interests and motivations (including our own), we can better alter the incentives faced by involved actors to achieve better policy results. Although the political economy aspect is not explicitly mentioned in Prichett’s presentation, the two approaches are highly complementary: not only do you need to understand the types of actors and their motivations, but also the nature of the policy itself.

      The next question is harder though. Even once you understand all that, how much can you actually say or do to improve the policy outcome? Or do you just understand better why it didn't work the first time around...?


      Bruce Byiers is Policy Officer Political Economy of Reforms and Development at ECDPM.


      This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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