Time constraints in governance reform practice

The Kennedy School event that I mentioned previously included an interesting panel about new practice in governance reform. It featured Peter Harrington of the Africa Governance Initiative, Jennifer Widner of Innovations for Successful Societies, and Nadim Matta of the Rapid Results Institute.

One theme that spanned their presentations was a focus on short-term, rapid changes: Harrington on Liberia’s 150-day post-election plan, Matta on his work to give 100 days of “extreme autonomy” for government staff to innovate, and Widner on case studies of reform efforts that have targeted “big results fast.” They all aimed at quick pushes that kick the governance capacity up a notch, with the hope of knock-on effects down the line.

Short timelines allow for quick wins that are either narrow/deep (one agency radically transformed) or broad/shallow (Liberia’s 150-day post-election plan). Going both deep and broad takes longer-term engagements. And since positive results of any kind are hard to come by in the governance reform space, it’s not surprising that positive examples of longer-term engagements are even rarer.

There are particular problems that come with longer timelines:

  • From the perspective of internal reformers, there may be political or other pressures to demonstrate results fast, even if substantive reforms would take time. So they inevitably focus on quick wins. Widner referred to this as their time-inconsistency problem.
  • A slightly different version of this problem afflicts the international actors who might try to support or prod internal reforms in the right directions. International actors face additional constraints like the projectization of aid, reliance on short-term consultants, and staff turnover at international development institutions. These constraints push them onto short timelines, undermine contextual understanding, and reduce flexibility — all of which are detrimental to the successful navigation of local politics, iterative learning, and sustained support of reforms over time.

I suspect that a further challenge is epistemic: we struggle to name long-term reform successes in part because they’re rare, but also because they’re just hard to identify! Like so much about institutional governance, the long-term successes are somewhat opaque to outsiders. Meanwhile, insiders are too embedded and may be partisans to the reform processes themselves. Think of the disagreements about how countries like Singapore or Rwanda have moved (some) things in positive directions over many years.

This is just one manifestation of the reform problems that Matt Andrews has detailed. I think what I took away from the discussion at the Kennedy School that day is the need to be cognizant of the timelines available to both internal and external reformers, and the need to find institutional space for extending those timelines whenever possible.

One positive example of that was described by Michael Woolcock earlier in the day. He discussed the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor project, which has been working in Indonesia and several other countries for over a decade. The accompanying benefits of consistent staff and deep contextual understanding are shockingly rare in our field.

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P.S.: The event now has videos up. Check out the full panel on New Practice in Action: