Episode 27: Bureaucratic Pockets of Effectiveness in Ghana
Key Points From This Episode:
• How bureaucracies are made up of human beings, not just rules.
• Erin’s experiences of Ghanaian culture; food, people, and her fieldwork.
• Perspectives on the idea that there is a lot of variation within states.
• Why Erin’s research began with identifying high-performing groups of the state.
• The common educational profile of people in Ghanaian pockets of effectiveness.
• Better transnational institutional transfer after melding foreign practices in a local context.
• How the idea of the ‘founding team’ factors into pockets of effectiveness.
• What principal agent theory gets wrong when studying bureaucracies.
• Perspectives on agency autonomy and how it plays into cultivating pockets of effectiveness.
• How the charter city can become its own pocket of effectiveness.
• Examples of how discretion is a motivating force for people who are pro-socially minded.
• How systems of reward and acceptance of failure can drive motivation.
• Perspectives on the role of clustering and agglomeration in shaping new culture in cities and pockets of effectiveness.
• The role of redundancy in keeping pockets of effectiveness more stable.
• Whether the recent discovery of oil in Ghana poses a threat to pockets of effectiveness.
• The role of informal characteristics in accomplishing tasks in organizations and how these are measured.
• Contrasts and connections between ‘positive deviance’, ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’, and pockets of effectiveness theories.
• Why Erin is skeptical about the idea of changing civil service codes in Ghana.
• Erin’s personal approach to effective bureaucratic management.
Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to The Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.
You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at chartercitiesinstitute.org, follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.
Kurtis: Hi. I’m Kurtis Lockhart, researcher at the Charter Cities Institute. Today on the podcast, I speak with Erin McDonnell. Erin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Her work focuses on the relationship between culture and social organization, from consumer groups to state administrative capacity, and her research has been published in some of the top journals in sociology and political science.
Her recent book, Patchwork Leviathan, was published in 2020, and looks at the emergence of bureaucratic pockets of effectiveness within otherwise weak state administrations with a particular focus on Ghana. I hope you enjoy.
Kurtis: Welcome to the show, Erin. Thanks for coming on.
Erin: Thanks so much for having me.
Kurtis: Great. Let’s jump right in. So, James Q. Wilson, what does he most get wrong about bureaucracy?
Erin: I think there’s just a vision of bureaucracy that predominates a lot of the early work that is overly focused on the choices about the systems itself. The choices about organograms, how pieces will fit together, the strategic choices. We know Williams has more of the political weight to it, too. But I think what isn’t as present is these ideas about the actual people who breathe life into those organizations whose daily actions are going to really determine how a rule on the book gets translated into the lived experience, both in terms of the way that individual variation can affect that, the way that small cultures can emerge within seemingly similar bureaucratic structures. And also, the way that large habits and tendencies that we sometimes associate with things like a prevailing national culture or culture in a certain state can affect the way that otherwise seemingly similar rules on the books actually take action.
Kurtis: So, bureaucracies or the state are made up of human beings, people, not just the rules is kind of what I’m hearing.
Erin: Yeah, I think for me, that’s a really important thing in my work, not just that they’re made up of people like as an obvious observation, like, “Look, there’s people there”, and not horses, or rabbits or something else. But that it matters that there are people doing the acting because they don’t actually hold all those rules in their head. They hold a lot of habits and practices that are part of their habit set, and all those things affect the way rules on the books crank out into the lives and the experience, the final end user experience of bureaucracies.
Kurtis: So, for the research and fieldwork in your book, Patchwork Leviathan, how long were you in Ghana for? And what was the most kind of surprising thing you learned about the country, the people, the food, the culture, all that fun stuff?
Erin: Those are great questions. So, I actually have been going to Ghana since 2000. 2000 was my first trip to Ghana. So, I was in Ghana for four months in 2000 as a study abroad student, and then I went back for almost a year before I entered grad school on a Fulbright. So, before I had even started the pre dissertation work that became the book, I had already lived in Ghana for about a year and a half. So, I didn’t have new surprises about the people, the culture, the food, I will just say Ghanaian food is amazing. It is, I think, the world’s greatest cuisine that has not been discovered by the international scene. It is an incredibly rich, delicious, diverse set of food. You should all run out and get yourself like a pot of and Hkatenkwan with fermented corn dough Banku, because it’s just fantastic.
The one thing I haven’t come around on is they love giant forest snails. These are like snails the size of the softball. It’s a delicacy. I haven’t quite gotten myself there yet. The people in Ghana are also about the most friendliest, and people you’ll find anywhere. It’s real common for you. If you need to ask for directions on the street in the US, you’ll get the brush off. In Ghana, someone will stop what they’re doing and walk two miles out of their way to take you where you’re going, and by the time you’re done. You’re holding their kid and eating dinner at their house.
Kurtis: You mentioned that in your book, right? But you said that kind of hospitality can actually hinder a researcher like you because they’re like, too nice and they don’t tell you they don’t have what you need, right? Give you the runaround of it.
Erin: That can be an issue, people don’t like to disappoint. They don’t like to tell, you know, that’s true. In terms of the field work, I was in Ghana, doing fieldwork on two separate trips about eight months each, eight or nine months each. So, a total about a year and a half collecting data for this particular project. It was an expensive and time-consuming process, because I had to do the work of trying to select cases first, and one of the big challenges is, we often see and we have all these technologies for seeing things about the state as a whole. The World Bank will produce a number and it’ll crank out a number and it will somehow pretend to tell us something about the bureaucratic quality of the state.
But what’s a lot harder to see if you aren’t close to the state and interacting with these different parts of the state at once, is there’s a ton of variation within any state. This makes sense based on our own lived experience, if you’ve been to, I don’t know, a DMV in your local area to get driver’s license, and some of them are good, and some of them are bad. Or if you’ve interacted with different sectors of your municipal government, some of which have given you great service and some of which have not, we have this lived experience, but it doesn’t factor into the way that we actually have thought about analyzed or measured states.
So, I had to start by finding, I was combing through trying to identify these high performing groups of the state. I had to start with trying to talk to a lot of people who had a lot of on the ground experience with parts of the state to get recommendations based on their experience about what were the high flying high performing parts of the state. So, that was really a lot of the front-end work was doing that identification work.
Kurtis: I’ll just note on Ghanaian food because I was there like you for a study abroad at the University of Ghana for a bit. So, while I enjoyed myself some groundnut soup and Omo Tuo, I don’t think I’ll ever quite come around to fufu and that’s it. That’s at the risk of my Ghanaian friends attacking me, but I don’t think I’ll ever come around to it. I apologize.
Erin: It’s true that fufu is not my favorite. I can certainly eat some fufu. I remember the first time I had it, they told me don’t chew. I just could not process what it meant to eat something you just swallowed without chewing and there I was just chewing indefinitely at this fufu. in danger of some sort of jaw lock. But it is remarkable stuff. It keeps you full for like a full day. I mean, it was like dinner the next day before I was ready to eat again. So, maybe fufu is the great diet solution the west has been looking for.
Kurtis: Yeah, I don’t think so, because I have a twin brother and he came along for the study away with me and he was a big fan of fufu. He had the pound serving, not the half pound and he went to Ghana and like came back and gained weight, which was not the normal for most of us. I chalked it up to his affinity for fufu.
Okay, we got checked off Ghanaian food.
Erin: That’s right food aside, you’re going to have a whole podcast on Ghanaian food.
Kurtis: Exactly. So, on the book. In your book, you write that most people in influential positions within successful Ghanaian bureaucracies, this is pockets of effectiveness. Most of these people had a common educational profile. You say they had a first degree usually from a local Ghanaian University, and then typically an advanced or professional degree from some University abroad, typically in Europe. So, how does this shared trait among effective bureaucrats in Ghana fit into your overall thinking on how pockets of effectiveness arise?
Erin: Yeah, so the first thing to say is that this wasn’t even necessarily something that was exclusive to Ghana, because it emerges in the comparison cases as well. So, the book deals with really close rich data from Ghana that I collected myself, but also historical data that I’ve drawn from existing cases in Brazil, China, Nigeria, and Kenya, as well, I looked at about six other cases that didn’t make it fully into the book. That was where I became struck by how often that educational profile appeared again, and again and again. And usually it wasn’t given any particular attention. It was sort of a throwaway observation. But across all those different cases, it really caught my attention.
What I think also kind of making sense of that, in part through the interviews that I did with Ghanaians, when I would ask how was going abroad for you? What do you feel like you learned while you were abroad? I was struck by how often the responses people gave me weren’t kind of perfunctory. If you ask things like, what did you learn or are there any ways that your time affects your work? They don’t say, “Well, I learned mass spectrometry and so now I can do this or I learned how to do econometrics and such and such tables and now I can do this.” That is literally what they were doing. But that’s not the answer they give, like the immediate answer is always something about what it is like to be in a formal organizational environment in a context in which bureaucracy is sort of the norm. I mean that not in the pejorative sense of like red tape, and people trying to make your life hard, but in the sense of like rules following large formal organization is the taken for granted.
So, people will say things like being on time, you’ll get people talking about, I remember how struck I was, when people say, “Let’s meet at 9”, they all come at 9. And this was faintly astonishing, early on, because it’s very different. For a whole host of reasons that make total sense, it’s very different from the way people keep time usually in Ghana. But it gave them this lived experience about some of the aspects that are the taken for granted, the unsaid that undergird the functioning of a large formal organization in the design that has perpetuated around the world, which tends to be of European origin.
So, they’re these taken for granted social foundations that didn’t get baked into the formal rules that were spinning around the world with colonialism. But nevertheless, help the functioning of an organization like that. Even things like I have one of the respondents who says things like, when I was in America, I realized like, while people are at work, they work. While they’re at work, they work. And then, yes, they leave and they do all sorts of other things. But like, they’ll just be doing that thing. They’ll be working while they’re at work. That is also a very different system. Again, for a host of really understandable reasons, a lot of people have to have multiple jobs, they may not have enough work to fill their time, so they’ve gotten accustomed not to kind of working constantly while they’re at work.
So, bit by bit between this pattern that went across the Ghanaian cases and comparison cases, and digging into how the Ghanaian in the qualitative interviews talked about, thought about their experiences abroad, I build out this theory that I call dual habitus. And it has to be a theory because I’m not in people’s heads. So, it can’t be conclusively proved. But the argument is that it’s very, very helpful to have a brain in both worlds, to have a brain that is thoroughly, thoroughly soaked in the the customs, the habits, the values, the practices, the tendencies of Ghana, in the case of Ghana, but also a brain that has been exposed to the habit sets of large formal organization, because they can then see how that would work in practice, if everyone was playing by those habits. If everyone was showing up at nine o’clock, how would that work? If everyone was coordinating this way, how would that work? If everyone worked the whole time they run, how would that work? How would that work? And they get to feel that and live that and experience that. It cultivates within most of the people who have that experience, a taste for that sort of organizational life.
So, when they go back to Ghana, they want to recreate something like that. And they don’t want it exclusively because they like care about being more Western. Usually, they want it because they think they care very deeply about helping the public sector perform better. They think that this is a tool that will help them do that. So, they bring this knowledge and taste for kind of doing large formal organization work in a particular way, but they’re able to meld it together with that deep knowledge of Ghana. So, that allows them to overcome these problems that I think often get in the way when we do transnational institutional transfer, which is that people don’t understand the taken for granted aspects that they aren’t mentioning to someone else. That person who has that foot in both worlds has seen both of them. They also get perceived as really, really authentic by the people they’re trying to bring and change to. When they bring new ideas, they’re encountered as us trying to think about how we can change ourselves. Not a kind of resistance that might happen because its outside ideas being brought in and telling us something.
Kurtis: Yeah, you call that the Goldilocks zone, right? That just the right amount of foreign exposure, right?
Erin: There was certainly one case where there was a high-end leader who had spent a little bit over 20 years abroad. That was also a kind of telling case for me. I don’t write about it a ton in the book because I wanted my focus to be more on the success cases. But it was a telling case in the sense that like the changes were much more like trying to import exactly the way practices have been done in the US context as opposed to taking that impulse and then melding and meshing it with a local sensibility and coming up with something new. That was also reflected in the way that I think some people received the suggested changes. There was kind of, I don’t know if I want to call it skepticism, but something closer to, I’m not so sure this is going to work here. But he’s important, and we’ll see.
Kurtis: Yeah. On this, it’s funny because I kind of roll my eyes at the amount of “capacity building”, the amount that term is thrown around where folks from the World Bank or other institutions they train, Canadian bureaucrats or Filipino bureaucrats or wherever. But if these bureaucrats I guess, on this line that you’ve just discussed, if these bureaucrats are flying to London or to DC, you’re saying there could be this more subtle effect beyond the capacity building per se, that these officials are being exposed to that dual habitus?
Erin: Yeah, that sort of said, if practices and habits. It’s like a fancy term from a French scholar . But I do think, like, on the whole, I think, a suggestion from my work. Now granted, it’s not like I’ve done in a kind of random assignment experiment to prove this, but a suggestion from my work is that if you had to choose between flying one white guy from Washington, DC, to Ghana, to give a workshop, or flying 10 Africans from Ghana to Washington, DC, to take an 8-week course, you’d probably be better off doing the second thing, even though it looks a lot more expensive. You might get a more durable change out of it.
Kurtis: Yeah, and just moving on, I guess. So, we had Yuen Yuen Ang on the podcast a few weeks back.
Erin: She’s wonderful.
Kurtis: Yeah, she’s great. I asked her what international development people miss about Sing – she’s Singaporean, what they miss about Singapore’s successful model of economic development. A lot of it is written on the vision and the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, specifically, and on the industrial policy of the economic development board. But I asked her, “What else?” And Yuen said people often miss the team, the founding bureaucrats that Lee Kuan Yew had around him. So, I’ll put it to you, how does the founding team factor into your work on pockets of effectiveness and feel free to provide examples?
Erin: Yeah, I’m totally on board with Yuen on that. It was something embarrassingly, it was the last piece that clicked for me too, impart because I think we live in worlds that really make very visible and, in some cases, even fetishize the role of a leader, that’s the person whose name is in the paper. It’s the person we’re seeing constantly. It’s the person of a name and many historical documents and that supporting cast around the leader is a lot harder to see through the spotlight that focuses on the leader. It was sort of later on again, and chewing through not only the Ghanaian cases, but all those comparison cases that I started to see each and every one of these cases had somewhere that sense of the team or the cadre, that is a cluster of people who developed relatively quickly a shared vision about what they were going to do.
In the case of the BNDES, the Development Bank, in Brazil, it was probably the most clear in part because it was a group of about four to six, depending on how you count it. They happen to all be men who had been instrumental in some ways in the founding of the institution, several of them had been on the the joint committee that actually established the bank by working in consultation with an American group. They all in the first several years of the bank served in different leadership roles within the bank, whether it was president or some other role within the kind of higher echelons of the administration. They all leaned on each other to do that sort of work.
Similarly, in the Kenyan case, also, in several of the Ghanaian cases, you have these identifiable groups, depending on the size of the whole organization, it usually looks like something between three and six, where you have a named leader who is recognized by everyone, but you have this really close group of people who worked very closely with the leader. One of the things that that does is it distributes a lot of the pressure that can sometimes fall on the leader, but it also distributes a lot of other things that are really healthy. It distributes things like monitoring. So, if you need someone to be walking around and making sure that people are learning that their actions are seen, that their actions matter, and that people who care about what they’re doing, will know what they’re doing. That’s not always true. And having more bodies walking around and doing that work distributes that leadership task of doing the monitoring, but it also, in my view, really importantly, distributes the leadership task of being examples. Because sometimes what can happen is that the leader can get set up on a pedestal and that actually says to us that, Steve Jobs, he’s got magical unicorn fairy dust or something, no one else can hope to be him. Don’t even compare to that.
Kurtis: Tiger blood.
Erin: Tiger blood. So, what happens with this group around the leader is not only that they distribute the monitoring, and they distribute being a living example of this new way of doing business, but they also make really clear that this is a thing you can learn and do, because they are the first followers. They’re the people who looked at the first leader, and adopted practices that were like that, learned how to be more like that person. So, you have that even in one of my Ghanaian cases, there was a very charismatic leader, like a just a whip smart, delightful man who worked in the Ministry of Finance group that I look at. I think it would be easy –
Kurtis: That’s Pard?
Erin: PARD, yup. I think it would be easy to be in an environment like that and say, “Well, yeah, but he’s special”, like, we can’t hope to be that. He’s a rate breaker. But he had two or three people around him who were known by everyone as his right hands, and they had also grown and adopted some of the same habits and practices he had around things like productivity, showing up early, staying late, around the quality of reports that they were known to turn in, around the way that they represented the group when they were chosen to go up and make presentations to the Minister, but even also around the way that they declined bribes when Junior people were in the room and saw them offered gifts that could have been inappropriate gifts, how they manage that situation. That became this message, like this is a model, it is a model you can and should emulate, you should learn to do work like this, and seeing these other people closely around the leader who are bought in and practicing that to sells to everyone else. This is the way, get on board. It’s possible, it’s desirable, and it gives them more access to examples of how to do it.
Kurtis: Yeah, right. The reality is often less great man theory of history and more like a great network theory or a great team theory of history.
Erin: Great team theory of history.
Kurtis: Yeah. It was interesting, because a lot of the work on bureaucracy is done using principal agent theory, right? And you kind of pushed back on this when you discuss the importance of these founding cadres, these founding teams, this small groups that followed the founding leader. So, in your view, what does principal agent theory miss or get wrong when studying bureaucracies?
Erin: I think principal agent theory has been – it has baked into such an incredibly pessimistic view of human action and human motivation. It’s grounded on this idea that we should make choices based on the assumption that everyone we’re interacting within a large organization has only self-interest. And we know empirically, even from experimental economics, that that’s not true. A lot of people have a tremendous amount of social interest. We also know that when you act in ways that are kind of externally punitive, or even that we’re like really, really heavily on extrinsic incentives, you can actually do real harm to people who do have social incentives. You can crowd out is the term that Bruno Frey uses who’s an economist. You can crowd out those intrinsic motivations.
So, I think it’s important to rethink how we conceptualize what it means to motivate people in an organization and to distribute the work of an organization with more realistic foundations about what those real human motives and drivers are. So that I think is one part of it. And I think related to that, the other part is a piece I alluded to earlier, that is that it’s so focused on the idea of carrots and sticks, that it’s completely blind to the idea of examples and how important examples are. I think one of the themes of my book that I try to bring out throughout is that our lived experience is a really profound shaper of our behavior, and most of our efforts at organizational change, do not take that into account. They’re just trying to persuade our prefrontal cortex to make a good decision. They’re not trying to persuade our habit sets. They’re not trying to train through experience a different habit set. I think that’s definitely true, the kinds of solutions that principal agent theory develops when it thinks about how to manage that tension it perceived between the interests of the principal and the interest of the agents.
Kurtis: Yeah, I guess another thing you discussed in the book quite a bit, I think the whole chapter is dedicated to autonomy, right? And autonomy looms pretty large in the literature on bureaucracy, especially new public management reforms that happened a lot in the ‘90s. You definitely support autonomy, but you define it in a particular way. So basically, how do you think about agency autonomy and how does that play into cultivating pockets of effectiveness?
Erin: It’s an interesting question and a tricky one, in part because reading the literature broadly, there’s these two kinds of conflicting perspectives that don’t actually often get brought into discussion, and the only thing they really agree on is that apparently, autonomy is some kind of silver bullet. If you give bureaucrats autonomy, like if you build it, they will come. If you can just solve this autonomy problem, things will be wonderful.
But I’m a little bit skeptical about that, that autonomy alone would be enough, because it suggests that the problems are exclusively coming through the efforts of high-end political elites, trying to politicalize parts of either the distribution of public goods or the jobs in the public sector, and that that is the only source of inefficiency in government. Manifestly those guys can’t cause that much trouble everywhere. There are lots of other issues at play as well. Also, even if we give agency to a particular organization, what’s to say that the person put in charge of that organization isn’t just going to act in the same way in control of their own personal fiefdom.
So, I think what emerges out of that is this idea that some possibility for being a sphere of difference is a really important critical foundation. It’s not enough. But it does appear to be a really important foundation. But the difference I make with some of the existing literature is there tends to be a fetishization of formal autonomy. Again, it’s because it’s a rule we can slap at a problem. It feels like a simple solution and so that’s attractive. It doesn’t ask us to do the hard work of saying like, but how do we get real discretion in the way that an organization makes decisions? How do we actually ensure, not just on the books, but in practice, that the choices an organization makes are being driven by efforts to attain its public mission, not prop up political support, when those two things are at odds.
So, I think that opens up thinking differently about – I actually wind up calling it discretion, because I want us to step away from the association, we have in our head with autonomy equals a formal legal designation. In part, there are lots of organizations that have legal autonomy and very little practical autonomy. There are organizations whose practical autonomy in my own study, the BNDES in Brazil, the Guinean Central Bank and Ghana, where they have had the same formal designation of autonomy the entire time, but their practical discretion has really gone up and down over time.
So, that designation of legal autonomy isn’t the whole story. But what I think it does, if you have some form of discretion, whether it can come from practical autonomy, or it can come from legal autonomy, but your ability to exercise discretion can come from other places as well. That is, there are just parts of the state that high-end political elites just can’t be bothered to trouble with. They’re just not attractive parts of the state. They don’t offer lucrative contracts in terms of political kickbacks. They don’t have a huge number of low skilled jobs that could be used to mobilize and reward supporters on the ground. They’re not desirable patronage targets. That actually can be incredibly protective for those parts of the state, because it gives them essentially shade, a shadow, an umbrella from that potentially detrimental political attention at the top. Within that space, they can exercise sometimes a fair degree of autonomy.
Kurtis: Yeah. I mean, just to sum it, I think you summed it best in saying autonomy or discretion matters because it gives agencies insulation, in essence, from them you call it neopatrimonialism, call it whatever you want, patronage corruption, from the corrupt status quo. This insulation enables some agencies to carve out the possibility of doing things differently. I read that and I think this same logic, we hear at CCI, we kind of see as applying not just to bureaucratic agencies, but it could also be applied to localities. So, I guess, with that, especially with localities that have a lot of or significant devolved authority from the center, so what can charter cities, if they want to become pockets of effectiveness in their host country, like a Sengen or Hong Kong, what can they learn from these pockets of effectiveness literature? If we just shift the unit of analysis from the bureaucratic agencies to the city?
Erin: Yeah, I mean, I think the first question that would rise is the question of, from where down do you have covered to engage in these different ways of thinking? So, at the national level, it matters. If you have a president who’s on board with reform versus one who doesn’t. I would just transfer that scale as well down to a mayor or to a governor of a region. It will make it will make a difference whether you have someone who’s on board with trying novel new things or not. That’s not to say that possibilities can’t emerge if they aren’t. But it does change the pathway if you have someone at the top who is reform minded. I think one important thing that we’re seeing is that discretion, although it has been feared in the past because we were afraid of what might happen if discretion was in the hands of the least scrupulous. Discretion is also an incredibly motivating force for people who are pro socially minded. This is something I’m seeing in a really powerful way in a project that sort of is a continuance of the book project that I’m collaborating with a World Bank team on now. Am I allowed to talk about a current ongoing project if you want me to?
Kurtis: Of course, I was going to ask you at the end, so feel free to divulge. Is this with the Dan Roger?
Erin: No, it’s with a, like I said, I don’t know what his exact title is. It’s with Sanjay Pahuja. So, Sanjay is actually in the water governance sector and he’s working with a team of civil servants in Chennai, India, who developed a training project, a training program that essentially works to cultivate stronger intrinsic motivation, in a sense of personal empowerment in the public sector. And what I think is really amazing about this is some of the incredibly impressive things that have come out of being willing to give everyday people at every level of the organization, permission to claim that kind of power over innovation for themselves. Just remarkable stories.
There’s a set of bureaucrats in the water sector in Addis Ababa, who went through the training and afterwards, one of the things that they noticed was that when they were kind of changing out and cleaning trucks that do sludge treatment, that they were losing a lot of water in the cleaning process itself. So, one of the women who wasn’t even an engineer, went and got an idea. She observed this as a problem, she got an idea for a way she could construct a tool that would actually reduce the water loss during the cleaning. She bought the materials with her own money, made this thing and then put it on the trucks. And then it inspired a bunch of other people to do these changes to the trucks, and then they were saving like one cubic meter of water per wash. It was a really impressive savings that came out of this individual ingenuity.
There was another agricultural engineer in Chennai, who observed that like in this multi sectoral project with eight different departments working together, allegedly, the farmers out in rural villages had no way of understanding who they were supposed to reach out to, to solve their problems and it was too hard for the farmers to get from the farm to the offices where these bureaucrats resided. So, he took it upon himself to work out with the town to arrange for an informal office and to work out with the other eight members who were representing the different departments, to be present in this village on a particular date and time that was posted in the central location so they could hear the grievances of the farmers, they could problem solve together with the farmers. This became such a successful model that it has now become standard across the region, because it made these dramatic improvements in service delivery, in water retention, in all sorts of areas that speak to like the real spirit of what that organization is trying to accomplish, conserving water, making sure that everyone has the water they need for their lives and their work.
These are things people took upon themselves, they were not part of their formal job description, and you can’t pay for that sort of ingenuity. But that is the response that some people will have to the gift or being allowed to claim for themselves discretion and say, I could make this choice, I could make this choice to take it upon myself to fix this problem.
Kurtis: When you have, I guess, individual empowerment at the local level, lo and behold, folks take advantage of being empowered and do some things. When, I guess, that power is taken away, or vice versa, motivation is sapped. You can say.
Erin: Right. I mean, getting back to the question of the municipality, I guess for me, I find very compelling the idea of thinking about how you can use the grants of discretion as a motivational tool, being kind of nimbly responsive to those moments and what’s going on so that you have kind of the feedback of, “Okay, you tried something, did it work, did it not work?” I think doing that, it’s something we we know, at the level of high-end American corporations, like corporations like Google have a real value around ingenuity, but they also know that means you have to be willing to embrace failure. You can’t ask people to be ingenious risk takers and never fail. You have to make it okay to fail if you learn from it, if you grow from it, if you move on and succeed in other ways, and that has not been something that’s terribly characteristic of the public sector in a lot of low and low to middle-income countries.
So, I think I am not someone who often says we should import corporate values, it will solve the public sector. But this one value, this one thing we know that we kind of recognized and grant when we’re talking about wealthy white industrial countries, I think is true in spades. But we have not given the public servants in low income countries the credit to think that they would actually use discretion, and pro social and sometimes incredibly ingenious ways.
Kurtis: Yeah. Yuen Yuen Ang talked about the importance of special economic zones in China’s early rise, just kind of delineating some powers down to the local level, there’s some central mandate being like, “Okay, you have to hit X GDP growth target. But other than that, figure it out.” Sure, there were some failures, but there were some successes as well, and then China was really good at diffusing those successes elsewhere. So, a similar dynamic.
Erin: Yeah. I think the other thing, like for me, to the extent that there’s a special sauce, it’s not that I advocate a particular policy, like people will sometimes ask me like, “Is Ghana the great growth? The model for governance reform? Should we all try to be Ghana?” It’s not bad to try to be Ghana. Ghana has a lot going on for it. But I think this special sauce is more in being deliberate and thoughtful about the people, making kind of well identified choices about who’s doing that kind of work that you value. And that also means rewarding people doing that.
So, a lot of these public sectors have very, very strong, almost gerontocracy-based promotion systems. You are promoted based on age, based on age, duration and service, and that is it. That is a problem that people recognize within the system. Sometimes they have to game the system. There was a long period of time, in which someone functioned as the acting director of PARD, but couldn’t actually be named the director of PARD because it would have promoted him above certain other people. So, there are all sorts of things like that, that can be discouraging to people who are trying to succeed through innovation and public service through taking these risks and developing these interesting ideas and bringing them alive. If they don’t feel like it’s recognized and valued by that organization, it’s really sending mixed signals.
So, thinking about as an organization, how can you see the qualities that you really value, whether it is innovation, or whether it is kind of going above and beyond the call of duty to solve client problems. Can you see when people do that? And how can you make that visible to yourself? How can you honor a reward that? Rewarding doesn’t necessarily have to mean salary. I mean, I think people should be paid well for the work they do. But people also really value feeling feeling seen for the work that they do. Sometimes that’s what public sectors can afford, they can afford gratitude, but they don’t often spend gratitude out, especially to people at the lower levels of organizations.
I remember, I’m very struck by one of the lower level staff at the Ghana Commercial Courts. He was just the most electric, enthusiastic man you have ever met. He described how he was doing a training to increase his skills and he had come across the Chief Justice, who was sort of walking around looking for folks. In his, in his enthusiasm for the work and his excitement for the work, he so impressed the Chief Justice, that the Chief Justice recommended him for this job with the new commercial courts. And that was just incredibly important to him because he felt seen for his capabilities by the most important person in his field. He was carrying that with him when he did every piece of work he did. He was carrying with him the fact that he had felt seen and recognized for his abilities by this person who was so important in his field.
So those things I think, are actually sadly rare in a lot of private sectors, that sense of like not descending from on high.
Kurtis: The connection between capabilities and like reward is almost severed a lot, right?
Erin: The connection between capabilities and reward, but also the connection between upper level management and kind of influential important people in the rank and file. Influential important people are a form of reward in themselves that feeling seen and recognized by them.
Kurtis: This is where you talked about the importance of traveling around across a bunch of the cases, right? The great leaders were the ones that were out frequently and checking up on lower level subordinates, right?
Erin: I wouldn’t even call it necessarily – checking up invokes all these new public management ghosts for me, like all sudden, I can hear principal agent theory. It’s not even necessarily checking up so much as it’s sometimes checking in. How are things going for you? Are you having problems? Can we figure out how to solve those problems together? Letting them just have face time with them is a form of reward in a network, in a place that really values your networks and your social connections. Having face time with the big important person itself is really a rewarding social experience for people.
So those things, I think, matter if I were setting up a city, I would try to think about, again, how to make visible the characteristics I really wanted to reward? How to have this communication challenge channels open enough that I could see those things that people could also see from me, being thoughtful and responsive? Some of these things about being thoughtful and responsive and innovative also take slack, what organizational researchers call slack. It’s not as lean. You can be a really lean organization, if you know exactly what you need to do, and you do only that.
But if you’re trying to like problem solve, or develop new things, especially in environments that can be very disruptive and chaotic. You need slack in your operations, because you need to be able to absorb when something doesn’t go right. You need to be able to absorb that, yes, 10% of your people were working on something that could have been an incredible breakthrough, but it flopped. But you’re still going to soldier on because you’ve got excess capacity elsewhere and you’re going to be able to get through it. Whether that means excess capacity in terms of some of the things we’ve seen at the city and municipal levels in the US in terms of processing unemployment claims in the wake of the COVID-19. Some of these administrations were so thoroughly stripped down, they had no slack in their administrative structure for things like unemployment, and they couldn’t grapple with a rapid change. They also were very, very slow to innovate or come up with solutions around how to deal with the new landscape, in part because they had so few people and so little slack, no one had the energy to do that problem solving. People were paddling to keep their heads above water.
Kurtis: Nathan Nunn, the economist, he came on the podcast last year. He was talking about this a bit. He talked about group level selection from sort of evolutionary anthropology, when you have groups that are competing against each other, which I would say happened in your story of these bureaucratic entities, sort of seeing themselves as unique and different. You have this group competition, and you can have traits or actions, which are not individually beneficial, but are socially beneficial. Yeah, I read your your book, and I saw this kind of group level selection logic play out in your pockets of effectiveness story.
Erin: That’s an interesting connection. Yeah, I mean, I certainly am attentive to and aware of that perceived sense of some – it’s not direct competition over resources, necessarily. But there is sort of a status game that is happening in people’s minds about what they’re able to achieve, relative to the negative stereotype that people hold about public servants, particularly, which is in some cases, not so so far from reality. There certainly are parts of the state that do not work well.
I have had lots of conversations with different African readers, who will say like, “It feels so refreshing to read that there are parts of the state that actually are working well for me, because it’s not always what I encounter.” So, I think there is this contrast that plays out that people find very motivating. It feels good to feel like you have a positive identity for your group. It’s the thing we actually know from decades of research into happiness, one of the primary drivers of people felt happiness is the sense that they are relatively better than someone else. It’s sort of a sad, but true feature of human motivation. So, that group contrast to the spoiled identity of how people think about public servants in general, is a motivating feature. People want within these entities, within these groups, they want to be seen as as different. They want to be known that they don’t do those things. They are operating at this kind of other level.
Kurtis: So, I guess moving on because there’s lots to cover. So, when you write about protecting these niches from weak, external institutional environments, you mentioned several strategies that pockets of effectiveness adopt. I saw that point on redundancy, as similar or related to a lot of Elinor Ostrom’s writing, especially your stuff on redundancy in metropolitan areas. But do you want to go over a few of these insulating tactics that that niches use?
Erin: Sure. So, redundancy is something – I use the word redundancy in part because it’s the kind of thing that challenges our preconceived notions about organization because we don’t normally think of redundancy as a healthy useful thing for organizations. But that’s where that argument about slack comes in. That by having built in redundancy, you can grapple with these unforeseen challenges that come at you. And many of these niches are operating in highly challenging environments that do throw a lot of unanticipated curveballs at them. It could be things like tropical illnesses that like malaria that might take someone out of work. It could be social things.
So, I mentioned in the book that in Ghana, there are very, very strong and elaborate funeral practices that can bring people out of work for a very long period of time. They can require you to travel to your hometown, a 12-hour bus ride north to act out all of those social obligations. And again, one doesn’t plan when a parent’s death will come. So, these can pull people out of the work environment.
There’s also a particular risk that these high-flying organizations have, which is that once it becomes sort of quietly known by people in the know that they are these highly effective groups, they’re the target of what in Ghana and some other areas is called secondment, which essentially means being borrowed elsewhere, temporarily borrowed elsewhere. So, the secondment horse trading can often happen at a high level, if the minister has promised you a way to another minister, you don’t have a lot of say in that, off you go. And so, that person can be plucked from your organizational plan, and everything you thought or intended them to do and accomplish in terms of work, and be shuttled off to another ministry for an unforeseen period of time. Sometimes it’s specified, but sometimes it’s not.
So, to grapple with these constant buffeting challenges, it would be really disheartening. You can imagine what it’d be like to try to get work done in this context, and to feel like you never, never get anything done, and the problems are all bigger than you. You can’t control them. But instead, what they do is they build in more redundancy in the process. That is you and I might have a similar set of skills, we might also have similar knowledge about what’s going on, we might meet regularly, it’d be like if I kept you up to date on my progress on my second book, and you kept me up to date on your podcast schedule, so that if tomorrow you were whisked away to some other entity, I could just step right into your shoes without a pause and start interviewing someone on the podcast.
Normally, we don’t design organizations that way. But in these contexts, where there’s high uncertainty about staff availability, it makes a ton of sense, because what it does is it allows them to actually meaningfully accomplish work. That is really important for people’s motivations. We have tons of research from neurocognitive science all the way into psychology and sociology that people need to feel like when they do something, it accomplishes something worth accomplishing. That there’s that link between their effort and these outcomes that matter. And putting that little extra bit of slack in, allows them to have these small wins to keep pushing progress forward, despite the chaos that’s in their environment.
I mentioned also the idea of trying to like discipline, the environment down, that’s kind of a higher order task. It’s not easy for every group to try to discipline their environment. We talked a little bit about the Ghanaian Commercial Court as an example.
There is a case where, by virtue, how the work is organized, judges actually have some authority over the people who they have to co-construct a court case with that is primarily the litigants and the actual attorneys who will come before them. So, they have a position in which they can try to discipline in the literal sense of teaching, not necessarily in the pejorative sense of punishing, those judges into acting in a way that is more beneficial for the functioning of the court, or sorry, the judges have a way of disciplining in the sense of teaching, not necessarily the pejorative of punishing the attorneys, to some extent the clients, into acting in ways that are helpful for the functioning of the court.
Part of what makes that possible is that they are not standing alone to do it, because this is the thing that causes so much burnout. If you are the lone person trying to do the task of saying, “You have to be on time. You have to have your paperwork done. You have to be on time. You have to have your paperwork done.” Or in my case, as a professor, like, “Please use spellcheck. Please use spellcheck.” Little things like that, you start to feel like it’s not worth doing, we should just give up the whole thing, it’s so tiring, it’s so exhausting. And part of the way that they support each other is that they hold the line together. There’s this way in which the Justices of the commercial court at that time, were in a distinctive building, you knew when you were going to it, you knew that all of them were going to have the same high standards, and so the kind of reputation mill got going quickly. It was able to identify, and it was meaningful for lawyers to learn. If I’m going to go to the commercial court, things will go better for me if I do X, Y and Z.
That’s different than if it’s just Curtis running one of 25 courts trying to toe the line. We’ve got a 1 in 25 chance of coming across to you, it’s not worth bothering any new and uppity behaviors like being on time and having all your paperwork and everything else just for the 1 in 25 chance they’re in front of you. That’s a different kind of calculus that the participants you engage with encounter. So, them being clustered together and all having that shared effort of doing the disciplining work, changes the incentive calculus for the the other parties as well.
Kurtis: On, I guess, continuing on this thread of protecting these niches, I’m curious about how bigger kind of dynamic changes to the institutional or political environment factor into your work? I think of Nigeria has had oil for a long time. This is widely seen as pretty detrimental to it, being able to establish institutions free from corruption and patronage because of this resource curse. But Ghana, discovered oil in and around 2010, relatively recently. Kenya discovered it pretty recently as well. I guess, right, this comes back to insulating the bureaucracy, with such a large influx of something like oil, money and investment, do you worry that these nascent pockets of effectiveness? Do you worry about them being overwhelmed? Maybe they see all their buddies eating at the oil trough and say, “What the hell?” How do you model that type of change?
Erin: That’s interesting. I mean, I think there are a couple of just basic production factors that could potentially be different. So, the oil in Ghana is offshore. And so, it differs from Nigeria in some important ways, it differs in terms of to some extent, the perceived ownership, like if something is on a particular land space that it can arise ethnic tensions around who owns that oil and the rights to benefit from those resources in a way that is blunted when you have offshore oil. It also means that the extraction costs are more substantial, and so you have these large-scale industrial investments. In that sense, it’s a little bit closer to at least in my thinking, and I’m not an expert in oil, but to some of the cases of deep shaft diamonds in Botswana, and in Botswana, they have managed to essentially fuel a lot of development, and the development of one of the more well-regarded administrative states on the continent. Using those deep well, diamonds in a really smart way, in part because it wasn’t a lootable resource. It was a fixed, it had these high startup costs to extract them that tended to be done by these recognizable entities who are easier and more compliant with taxing.
So, there are some potential differences there. I think it’s a different question. One, the oil was just being discovered in Ghana, and the discussions, the early discussions were going on about how it’s used was going to go down when I was ending my fieldwork. So, some of the members of PARD were being called into meetings to talk about how that might work. I don’t have direct on the ground fieldwork about some of those decisions. But I have this kind of parallel thinking, which is, one of the things most of them had to grapple with that I talked about a little bit in the book is that they were doing so much work, but they were not being paid more than other people in the state. It’s a little bit the reverse question. How do you feel doing a lot more, but not making any more than someone else’s? But you sort of up the ante a little bit more and say, “Would you still be okay, if you were working so much for this small amount of pay? If someone else elsewhere in the state was potentially having a much more lucrative –”
Kurtis: Oil pay day.
Erin: Oil pay day. That is an empirical question I don’t have an answer to. I think it’s legitimate to be concerned that that could be a drain on that sense of collective and personal worth that drives a lot of their actions. I think it’s also possible, some of these are really robust organizational cultures. They’ve been around for a while they’ve gone through a lot already. By most accounts, the Bank of Ghana, kind of as a whole has been one of the most high functioning aspects of the state in Ghana, since before I was around. Possibly since its founding, but even through the ‘70s, when Ghana was going through a series of military coups, constant changes at the head of state, there were some wild ride moments at the Bank of Ghana. I can’t remember if it made it into the book. But I remember being told by a very highly placed source within the bank about a time in the ‘70s, where the government was keen to cultivate a state-owned enterprise and cheap farming. And they were desperate to find someone who they thought would actually do a good job running this. So, it was sort of like, problem meets solution. The answer was like, “Well, we know these bank guys are actually good at being bankers.”
Kurtis: That did make it into the book.
Erin: Maybe they’ll be sheep farmers too. So, you know, they weren’t great sheep farmers. You’ll notice, Ghana is not the new, New Zealand of the world or anything, but they’re still pretty good bankers. They’ve still made it through a lot that’s been thrown at them over the last 50 years. So, I think once you have such a robust organizational culture that people are really bought into, that you have a lot of kind of shared identity in, those things are actually, they’re able to conquer a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for, to make it through challenges. So, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that everything will go horribly because of oil.
Kurtis: To summarize, I guess, you’re more inclined to think that Ghana will go the way of Botswana rather than Nigeria or somewhere else that suffered from a more aggressive resource curse?
Erin: Yeah, I’m having a hard time separating out if I’m just unfailingly optimistic, because I love Ghana and want that to be true. But I do think there are some empirical factors on the table that might make that not just a twinkle in my eye.
Kurtis: Yeah. So, I wanted to ask about in formality as well, and this kind of tangentially relates to you bringing up the fact that the Bank of Ghana was used in this weird ad hoc informal arrangement to shepherd sheep as some part of Ghanaian history. So, when I think of informality in the global south, the last thing that I think about is bureaucracy. These are supposed to be like, by definition, the most formal things ever, but you document there’s actually quite a bit of informality within pockets of effectiveness. The one that stuck out to me is how there was no – like you’ve mentioned this, there was no official head of PARD, which is that unit in the Ministry of Finance. There’s no head for something, I think it was five years or something crazy like that.
Erin: It’s a long time.
Kurtis: So, I’ll put it to you, in what other ways are pockets of effectiveness informal?
Erin: I think there are actually ways in which a lot of the business of the state is informal, and interlaced with a network within those pockets of effectiveness nodes in the state. I’m thinking first and foremost about, when I was actually negotiating to get permission to access the Ministry of Finance, which is itself, very much a process of speaking to many people and sharing letters and shaking hands and working your way up the chain until you get to someone powerful enough to say yes, or no, but in this case, luckily, yes. I remember walking down the hallway, with this highly placed official in the ministry, and what he said to me was, “If you look at our organization, and you think that what gets worked on here, reflects what our organogram looks like, you have missed everything.” I think that kind of captures it. There is a lot of how work actually gets done, that has nothing to do with who is supposed to do the work, and everything to do with some combination of who can and who will do the work.
So, you have PARD doing things that on paper it has no business doing. Sometimes those activities become formalized. So, the Chinese case I write about in the book is about a salt tax authority in early 20th century China. When this entity was made, its literal task was like transport, it was supposed to transport the salt tax that had been collected already by the Chinese salt tax agency, and just sort of like carry the purses over to the foreign lenders because this salt tax was being used to secure a loan. Then there was this period of organizational expansion that was utterly informal. They just started doing things. They started reforming things, they started taking over responsibilities for collecting salt taxes, they started changing the way depots were constructed to make it harder to smuggle salt. And it was in this context in which like, formally, it wasn’t any of their business, but they were doing it and the other agency wasn’t organizationally strong enough to do those things itself, and no one was strong enough to even be aware that this was going on at first and tell them, “Hey, stop, that’s not your job.”
Then, by the time we got sort of several years down the road, they had done such a good job at doing all of these things that everyone was just sort of like, “Yeah, well, I mean, that works.” I think on a smaller level, I talked earlier about this new project that I’m doing with the Center for Excellence in Chennai, and the training that they’re doing, it’s very much similar things. Giving people entirely informal permission to make choices and solve problems. And then, if they work, figuring out how they work and trying to think about how you can formalize them and how you can spread them. But often that means people are going outside of their formal role. I mean, we know already from organizations, there’s a reason that work to rule is a way that you can strike without striking. If you do only what you’re literally tasked with doing, you can cripple an organization. There are so many things that actually help us meaningfully accomplish the organizational goals that aren’t specified, that aren’t in your contract, that people take upon themselves to do, sometimes out of habit. But these informal moments are then expanding that. PARD does a lot of work for other parts of the Canadian state, because PARD has the capability to do it. PARD has the willingness to do it. Not because it’s their formal job in the organogram.
So, I think that’s kind of where that in formality plays a role. It’s in the stretching of tasks into domains, sometimes that are just liminal. Not clearly stated for one party or another, sometimes that are clearly someone else’s job. But doing them anyway, because they have to be done.
Kurtis: You talked about, just again, on informality. You talked again, about recruitment and how there’s formal trajectory, but then there’s also the part of recruitment that relies on networks and and referrals from people they trust and all this stuff. So, I guess it plays in the whole spectrum of pre hiring to the recruitment process, to being inculcated in the new agency, and then on the role as you were just talking about.
Erin: Yeah, I think this is a really challenging one. This is another place where part of what I wind up saying is, “Hey, we’ve been really quick to demonize these behaviors.” And yes, sometimes they have negative effects. Sometimes, informality and hiring is used to hire your nephew or your buddy, who doesn’t actually deserve the job. But we shouldn’t be so reflexively quick to say, “I see informality. Therefore, it’s definitely being used for nefarious purposes.” Because there are so many features that are important to doing a job that are difficult to measure or specify with a certification or something you can see on a resume. Often, people in these niches in Ghana will talk about it in terms of things like being hard working, being industrious, or moral terms like being incorruptible. There is just not a certification of incorruptibility that you can like go to school for and stick on your resume. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important to the job performance, and it’s in the public interest.
So, they have to try to find these informal ways to evaluate those important characteristics that are so difficult to measure in other ways. And they usually wind up using informal interpersonal networks or periods of observation, that allow them to sort of see the proof with their own eyes somehow. Sometimes this involves close relationships with professors at training institutes. There’s sort of a rivalry between two training institutes at the University of Ghana, one of them is called ISSER. There is a kind of pipeline that happens between some of the best and brightest students who come through ISSER, who get identified by the professors associated there with some of the jobs in the bank, where the professors will kind of recommend this is a particularly bright student, or in the Ministry of Finance as well.
So, in that sense, you have someone on the ground, who you trust, the professor, who has a track record of making good recommendations to you. And they’re able to observe through the students’ everyday conduct across the course of their education, is this the kind of student who is hardworking, goes above and beyond, they’re curious and interested to learn. Those observational qualities, and then recommend that along. Observation, even in the form, I told the story about the Chief Justice happening by this person who was doing the training and like his interest and enthusiasm and training for the job is kind of evident in a short conversation with this man, and that was something that Justice connected with as well and thought this is somebody who has merit for bringing in. There was a very extensive, although very cloaked procedure as well, for the Chief Justice essentially, personally vetting all of the founding judges for the commercial courts. And they will say, sort of like, “I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but all of a sudden, I was hearing that they were feeling me out through all of these people who knew me. Many people who knew me were having conversations about me.”
So, having lots of interpersonal conversations to figure out about someone’s again, Ghanaians would call it character as a sociologist, I don’t want to think about it as a stable trait of a person, like some sort of genetic endowment, but about these qualities that are so hard to measure and so valuable. So, using, again, those personal networks with people who had firsthand knowledge. In the case of PARD, they also did a lot of sort of quasi apprenticeship That is, they would recruit from two sources that allowed them in different ways to observe someone on the job before they committed to them and committed to all of the protections and everything else that are in doubt in the civil service code. One of them was that there’s a national service program in Ghana, where college graduates are placed in jobs that are supposed to benefit the country and some of those jobs are in the public sector.
So, they can take a look at someone who’s working in their area through that public service program and evaluate how well they learn on the job, how well they adopt the expectations for working hard, then at the end, they have the ability to say yes or no to them. They also would do what I call poaching. So, they would be on the lookout for people in the organizational environment around them, who were sort of standing up, who were going above and beyond, who were showing that they were curious. So, there’s one woman I spoke with who was saying that she didn’t have enough work to do, and so she was constantly asking people for work. That is, she was essentially showing herself to be industrious and not content to sit around. Even though she had done everything she’d been assigned. She would have been well within rights to do nothing more. She was taking that extra step to seek out work. And so, when someone in PARD happened to hear about her doing this, they started just giving her work.
So, here’s another example of that informal structure. She’s over in B, but she’s doing work for A. She’s accomplishing A tasks. She’s getting it done. They get to see the quality of her work in real time. And then over a sufficient number of those interactions, then they can initiate a more formal transfer to have her actually be formally part of PARD.
Kurtis: Yeah, so that’s kind of my questions on the book. But I wanted to zoom out. I have two more questions left, and then I’ll let you get to your dinner and whatnot. So, how does your work on pockets of effectiveness, align or not align with problem driven iterative adaptation, PDIA, positive deviance right, that Pritchett Wilcock and Andrews write about?
Erin: I certainly think positive deviance is another analogous term for a pocket of effectiveness in the sense. I do talk in places about the idea about how being bureaucratic and some of these contexts is deviant. We assign that kind of deviance, normatively positive glow, but it has a lot of the same challenges that any form of deviance has. You have to figure out how to protect yourself. You have to figure out how to get together the resources you need to do what you’re doing because they’re not available everywhere. Those are classic problems of being deviant. Only here, we forget that they apply to things like bureaucracy too, like doing the work in a pro social way. So, I think the positive deviance label, I’m absolutely happy to make peace with.
I also think there’s differences with the topic of analysis, the problem of driven iterative adaptation and my work share at their core an agreement on the idea that one of the most important foundational things is having people very steeped in the local problem, driving the solutions. Indeed, driving the identification of the problem. People who have on the ground knowledgeable experience, making those choices about identifying what the challenges are, identifying what potential solutions there are. Because a well-informed Ghanaian, with dual habitus, who has that kind of foot in both worlds is always going to make a better choice than I would make for them. They’re always going to make a smarter choice.
So, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t necessarily make policy prescriptions, like we should all have X or all have Y, because I think the closest to the best policy prescription is, we should try to identify the people in your local environment, who are going to be the most likely to make creative and flexible, sensible adaptations that will fit well with your local environment to solve the problems you encounter in your local environment.
I think the PDIA, they emphasize the iterative, the sort of more gradual adaptation. I certainly am not opposed to that at all. It’s just not a point I particularly underscore as much. I’m more focused on questions about like how do you actually get going the group dynamics that allow this to become something that’s sustainable, that doesn’t exhaust the individual, but that instead, becomes something closer to a perpetual motion machine. If you get a group of intrinsically motivated people socially bonded with each other, who strongly identify with an identity that is really defined by effective public service, like that’s the core identity. Those people will do amazing things for you. Amazing things. They will solve problems you couldn’t identify before they become big problems. They will come up with creative solutions that aren’t just out of a book. And they will come up with adaptations that work really well in the local environment. That’s a great resource to have.
So, I think that sense of what are the group dynamics that make some of that positive decision making possible, is a way in which I see my work kind of complementing some of the core insights from PDIA.
Kurtis: Great. So, we’ve talked a lot about bureaucracy. You’ve done a lot of research on it. So, I’m going to ask a big, hairy, very general question and feel free to speculate. If you could change anything about that typical public service laws, civil service codes, what would it be? Feel free to take a moment too.
Erin: I mean, the truth is, I don’t think a ton about the legal codes, in part, because in many of the places I work, they are sort of porous. The legal codes themselves are kind of porous, an unreliable actor in many of these equations. In some ways they do matter.
So, for example, the civil service protections against firing, certainly matter people see and respect those. There is a widely shared understanding that it’s hard to fire a civil servant, even for something like poor performance. In some cases, even for things like documented fraud or corruption, it can be hard to fire people, and that plays a role in how pockets of effectiveness can involve, or the issues that they can face.
But even at that level, I don’t think that that is entirely driven by the legal policy on the books, so much as it is driven by this widely shared, understanding that it is not a thing that that should be done. That holds people back as well, even in cases where they legally could, for example, transferring people, there aren’t prohibitions against transferring people around the civil service. But even still, it’s widely understood that you’re not supposed to do it. It’s widely understood in most cases, unless there’s a real clear enhancement of your status that it’s a form of demotion or punishment. It is really uncommon to do. It is done sometimes in the pockets of effectiveness that I studied the book, but it’s seen as a very distinctive thing when they do it.
Kurtis: What about you know, saving your your buddy, the director at PARD, that five years of informally being the head, but not officially because of that seniority rule? What about that seniority rule?
Erin: So, the problem with even the seniority rule is, again, the seniority rule reflects what people expect. So, it’s hard if PARD is out there flagrantly violating the social expectations, then they’re making trouble for themselves. One of the things about these groups is they’re trying really hard not to make trouble for themselves. They’re trying really hard not to be the nail that sticks up, gets hit by the hammer. I don’t know if I just have a lot of folksy sayings being for Wisconsin, but they don’t want to call down negative attention on themselves. And so, flagrantly flaunting these age and seniority rules, would have made trouble in the way that they had to interact with other parts of the Ministry of Finance, because there would have been resentment, even if it was okay, according to policy, it would have violated people’s social expectations and still cause problems for them.
Now, yeah, some things can change. Is it possible that if they change the policy over time, you’d have a change in the social expectations? That is true. That might happen. But we’re also talking about a society that does place a great deal of respect and value on age. So, you might change that rule and get very little change in effect.
I’m almost tempted to say this is one of those ones, where I’d want to say, I’d like to pass my wish on to the Ghanaian director of PARD and let him make the choice about what he’d like to change. Because I think that’s the spirit of which I’m trying to write. I don’t have the answer for every organization. But there’s someone in that location who knows what would be the most helpful for them, who has on the ground insight and experience. I’d like to let them make that choice.
Kurtis: Okay, good. So, I lied when I said I had two more questions. This is my last question, and this is good, because I’m turning the lens now from Ghana to you. So, I saw a tweet from Chris Blattman at the Harris School this morning. It struck me as relevant to our conversation. So, I wanted to read it, he said, and I quote, “So I realized that I need to formally teach some of my project staff how to manage upwards. Today I told one of them that you have to treat any busy manager like an ADHD toddler who needs clear and constant instructions and reminders, especially professors.” Okay, so having said this, how do you, Erin McDonnell, apply what you’ve learned about effective bureaucratic management to your own life and your job as a professor and stories and anecdotes are encouraged.
Erin: Okay, so one, I’m laughing in part because at least in the context of COVID, Chris Blattman and I are living the same life, because I very much said roughly that same thing to a graduate student named Luis Villasa, who I work really closely with. I was like, “Louise, I just need you to just grab time on my calendar, like harass my attention, so that we sit here and we work on this paper together, because I have so many balls I’m juggling right now.” The ADHD toddler sounds exactly right.
I do think there are moments when I’m very aware of and also try to cultivate the sense of being – the sense of group identity, elevating the particular characteristics, the positive characteristics that I want to draw out and draw up in people through producing a sense of shared group identity around those characteristics. “You guys were special, I chose you for the following reasons. This is why I want to work with you my arrays”, or this is why I’m – like I had a class I taught on professional publishing, and there was kind of an application procedure to get into that class, and I evaluated people’s work, but also interviewed them. That was part of the process of producing a sense that they were special to be in that environment and it has these effects that you see in the cases as well, like people feel special to be in the environment. They rise to the occasion of the expectations. They understand themselves to be not only individually, but collectively defined by having met this kind of high threshold of performance, and they want to live up to that, and they work really, really hard to do it.
So those are certainly things that I think, in some of my class practices. When I was doing graduate work at Northwestern, it was the thing that I did there as well, which was that there was a class I taught called study abroad research projects, it was essentially a no credit class that students took, if they wanted to go abroad and do an independent research project while they were abroad. Maybe, it is a one credit, whatever it was. It wasn’t like a major part of the coursework. They were opting into it. It was ungraded and they worked their faces off. They worked so hard in this class, because they had been chosen from a pool of applicants, we told them, they were special. They were special/ I’m not clear, if you can make this up. If you could get people who were lumps on a log to perform in quite the same way. But these were high performing interested kids, but they together became so much more than any of them individually would have been left to their own devices, because they were in that environment. I think that my classes produced maybe like seven or eight Fulbright Scholars at this point, like I’m rivaling some small schools in terms of Fulbright production.
One of my first students who came out of that class is now a professor at Columbia and going to be working with the Department of Labor. They went places. They felt a community with each other and a familiness with each other, based on those shared traits of like, we are these kinds of people. We’re the kind of people who are going to go above and beyond and do this extra thing and we’re doing it for these entirely intrinsic reasons. Reinforcing that group identity. Giving a lot of discretion to people. Not every single research assistant I work with gets the same amount of discretion, that’s sort of an earned thing. But you give them some discretion, and if they run with it, and they do great things, you give them more.
My current relationship with Luis is perfectly like that. Working early on with him on some of the – he’s a Brazilian. So, I was working with him on some of the Portuguese documents around the development bank. So, I had given him this task that I thought would take him two weeks. A week later, he came back and said, “Well, I did this task. I took the liberty of translating all of these passages. I also thought that you might be interested this. So, I pulled these three like things from this archive that I found, and I’ve organized them chronologically.” I was just blown away. And I was like, “Yes, please have some more rope. Have some more rope. You do you.” And that has led to, I think, a really productive relationship.
Again, it’s a challenge. I’m not so naive to think if you give everyone discretion, absolutely everyone will rise to the same level. There certainly are individual characteristics at play. But it’s also true that if you have someone who has the drive and the inclination and everything else, but you deprive them have that discretion, you also are not going to get those fantastic results. You need to kind of get that environment together where you have the social reinforcement, the group identity, the presence of genuine discretion to have an influence over decisions that matter that I think makes for a much more meaningful working environment, even in an academic setting.
Kurtis: Great. Well, when we ultimately published the podcast, we will be sure to take Chris Blattman in it, so he can take a listen. Erin McDonnell, thanks again for coming on the podcast and for the great discussion. Thanks so much.
Erin: Thanks. It was a pleasure Kurtis.
Mark: Thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to The Charter Cities Podcast.
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