Posted by Jamelia Harris and Andrew Lawson
Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock sets out the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach and how this can be implemented to tackle complex or “wicked hard” problems. It comprises four “principles of engagement” (Figure 1). Importantly, PDIA is locally driven and predicted to lead to better results compared to the importation of international best practices.
Figure 1: PDIA principles of engagement
In reviewing the book, Richard Allen suggested five points that were left unanswered: (i) unrepresentative case studies; (ii) unclear distinction between problems and solutions; (iii) ambiguity of terms integral to the PDIA approach; (iv) significant time commitments required from local staff; and (v) the possibility of PDIA being a technical response to fundamentally political problems. These points raised questions over the ability of the PDIA approach to regularly generate successful results.
In 2017, the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI) launched its first application of the PDIA approach through the Building PFM Capabilities (BPFMC) in Africa Programme. In 2018, another six country teams participated. The 2018 cohort - Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Lesotho, Liberia and Nigeria – was evaluated by consultants from FISCUS, thus providing a set of representative case studies of the application of PDIA. Joana Bento summarised three key lessons from this evaluation giving evidence of areas of success for PDIA, but leaving unanswered some of Richard Allen’s concerns. As members of the evaluation team, we here address these concerns based on the evidence from the evaluation.
What works well
Bento noted the importance of (i) problem identification, (ii) experimentation, and (iii) building teams and institutions, as key lessons in favour of PDIA. We add two success factors to the list:
Likely conditions for success
As Richard Allen contended, the evaluation confirmed that case selection, staff time commitments, and the political nature of problems are critical. In the three cases that showed the most promising progress, there were three common features:
Conclusions on the role of PDIA in the PFM reform agenda
Through the CABRI BPFMC programme, PDIA has proven itself to be a valuable instrument in the PFM reform toolkit. It is useful in identifying problems, teasing out critical blockages, and developing local capabilities to drive reforms. These contributions are important and may be essential for PFM reforms to be sustained. But PDIA is not a silver bullet: it is not yet clear that it would be a useful tool in addressing politically sensitive problems. In many contexts PDIA might become more effective in combination with other approaches to PFM reform.
In sum, we are optimistic about the potential of PDIA, mindful of its limitations, and hopeful that there will be a wider take-up of PDIA alongside other reform approaches.
 FISCUS, Public Finance Consultants, UK.
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