Government officials in developing countries often know that implementation of policies and programs is their weakest link. But how do they access that knowledge to better their skills, and ensure that it is adaptable to their own specific context and challenges? For five years, the Building State Capability (BSC) program has provided a bridge: sharing proven tools and research on how to make government work, and increasing the implementation capability of officials. BSC is the newest initiative of the Center for International Development (CID) at Harvard University . 

“Our approach is different than most,” explains Salimah Samji, director of BSC and a research fellow at CID. “Our work is based on problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), which focuses on constructing and deconstructing the problem. A lot of the work you see in development focuses on retrofitting solutions to problems that may or may not exist. We believe you have to solve problems and not sell solutions.”

“We’ve encountered a lot of ideas in international development that are not bad ideas; they’re just not working,” adds Matt Andrews, senior lecturer of public policy at HKS and one of the faculty directors of BSC. “We had the idea to convene groups of non-experts, who are having to work out these ideas on the ground. The idea is, you fail faster, and can try things again.” 

“We believe in small steps,” Samji says. “That way, you gain legitimacy and functionality. You get better at problem-solving when you can break a problem down into small, manageable tasks and see measurable, tangible progress.”

To that end, BSC comprises several different facets: an in-person process whereby faculty members direct in-person workshops in countries such as Sri Lanka, Albania and South Africa, and an online course that aims to disseminate the tools more widely. 

“Success is diffusion,” Samji explains. “We want to get these tools into the hands of people on the front lines of government.” She and her colleagues also have created an extensive video series: more than 70 videos, each 3-5 minutes in length that explain and explore the principles of PDIA. The first BSC online course attracted more than 900 students from countries all over the world.

This spring, Andrews, Professor Lant Pritchett and Lecturer Michael Woolcock released Building State Capability, the book version. Published by Oxford University Press, it outlines the PDIA process in detail. The authors also enabled an open access version of the book, which was available for free download at the same time as the book’s UK on-sale date in late January. (The book was released in the U.S. in March.) As of Aug. 15, 2017, the book has been downloaded 3,357 times by users in 151 countries: a testament to the widespread appeal and applicability of these ideas. 

Andrews likens the BSC approach to “trying to build the airplane and fly it at the same time,” rather than building a plane and then flying it. “It’s hard,” he says, “but very educational. These students who are really invested in the outcomes of these problems – learn and develop capability to do the thing they need to do.”

As the students apply PDIA principles to their own situations, they also learn from one another. “The course is split into modules, and there are two assignments per module,” Samji explains. “One assignment is aimed at understanding the concept, and the other is a reflection assignment, which asks students to reflect on learning in their own environment.” Students review each other’s reflection assignments, which “sparks a lot of learning,” Samji says. “It’s very cool for someone in, say, Nigeria to read about someone in another country tackling a similar problem with the same principles, and perhaps getting a very different result.”

As the BSC team continues to refine their material and experiment, both Samji and Andrews point to the importance of using PDIA with the program itself. “We iterate!” Samji says, laughing. “We’re always using the PDIA principles to refine the curriculum and the format.” 

Andrews agrees. “For our next course, we’re trying something new,” he says. “People have to sign up as a team, around a problem, with an authorizer on the team. This course will focus on building communities of practice.”

Whatever form it takes—videos, in-person workshops, online courses or books—the BSC program offers real, practical tools that help it live up to its name: building the capabilities of states to serve their citizens well. 

“We’ve thought long and hard about how to do this, how to make it accessible,” Andrews says. “The tools we use are really simple: Anyone can use them.” And the clincher? “They do.” 

Related faculty

Matthew Andrews Photo

Matthew Andrews

Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development

Michael Woolcock Photo

Michael Woolcock

Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy

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