Adding People into PDIA

There’s a new acronym on the minds of the wonks and academics who set the agenda on governance reforms: PDIA.

“Problem-driven iterative adaption” in its full form—or just “purposive muddling” to its friends—represents a new approach to reforming governance institutions in developing countries. The framework is articulated in a recent book by Matt Andrews called The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development. Andrews grounds the framework in a variety of case studies and research findings, making a strong case for the approach. It’s significantly advancing the discourse on governance reform.

In brief, PDIA is about starting with locally defined problems rather than externally defined solutions, and pursuing incremental reforms in an iterative manner, with the end goal of creating adaptive institutions. The framework addresses many of the failures inherent to typical approaches to institutional reforms, while also explaining some of the rare success cases.

If you’re interested in digging further into PDIA, start with this post and consider reading the book. Fair warning though: this is not a pop development book for the general audience. Andrews is a heavyweight.

A story with no characters

The book’s analytical rigor almost made me forgive it for its one major oversight: the lack of people. As Andrews describes cases of reform—both failures and successes—you rarely find the name of a particular actor involved. The Minister of Finance, the World Bank consultant, the local government official—they’re all relevant to the reform efforts, but they’re conspicuously absent from the book.

This is a strength, in one sense. Otherwise smart people who try to write for general audiences often rely on narrative hand-waving to gloss over gaps in their theories, suggesting they have explanatory power without actually explaining. In international affairs, this manifests as the “my taxi driver says” type of evidence. Andrews avoids that, building instead on much more solid ground.

However, there are two drawbacks. First, a story with no characters makes for a dry read. That’s a minor stylistic point.

The more critical point is that PDIA sans people provides less insight into one critical dimension of reform: how individuals actually change. We all know that institutional change is deeper than new rules and regulations. Institutions are composed of people, and institutional change involves those individuals changing their behaviors, social norms, and cognitive frameworks.

This point isn’t entirely missing from the book’s evidence base. For example, Andrews digs into the nature of multi-agent leadership in promoting successful reforms, as contrasted with the myth of the heroic reform champion. He also highlights that external agents (e.g. international donor staff) are most helpful when they’re stationed in the country over long periods, so that they’re known and trusted by those in the reforming institutions. But the research went no deeper on these successful reform agents.

Without those insights, even the detailed case studies leave us with an incomplete picture of the reforms. The evidence base draws heavily from World Bank evaluation reports, making the result feel like a desk study. I’d love to see Andrews bring more observations from his work “in the field”—as it were—while acknowledging the risks of the “taxi driver” syndrome.

Bringing people back into the analysis

The individuals who make decisions—whether the big decisions about the course of reform, or small ones about whether to go along with it—should be at the center of our analysis.

Who was making these decisions and what influences did they face? What relationships did the various reform partners have with one another? How did they navigate the obstacles and opponents to reform? What were the dynamics and inflection points in social norms, management practices, communication channels, conceptual frameworks, and other dimensions that shaped the contours of reforms? These elements would give future reformers much greater insight into how they should proceed in new situations.

The human-centered research that can surface these insights takes a mix of methodologies and data sources. Reboot draws heavily from ethnography, journalistic inquiry, and political analysis to understand actors, norms, and relationships. We apply these methods to topics you wouldn’t expect—like our ongoing “fiscal ethnography” study that’s pioneering a completely new approach to understanding public financial management. (More on that at a later date.)


Despite my eagerness for an additional human dimension, Andrews’ PDIA framework is driving fresh new thinking on institutional reform. Even while these ideas get debated and refined, experimentation with specific mechanisms and methodologies for putting these ideas into action is underway. We’re excited to be part of that, in our own small way.

Interested in Matt Andrews’ work? Check out his blog or follow him on twitter.

Futher reading.