Renewal
May 7, 2012

From best to smart practice: A global perspective

Best practices are a way of accomplishing a business function that is considered to be superior to other known methods. But, as anyone acquainted with public management knows, it is not easy to transplant a best practice from one organization to another, and it is even more difficult to implement best practices from one country, culture or civilization into another. Jim Armstrong argues that when supporting renewal in developing countries, we must promote the development of smart practices that reflect their specific needs.

Public administration across the world is engaged in reform and change projects, governance improvement, anti-corruption, reorganization, merit-based human resource management, alternative service delivery mechanisms, reinventing government, joined-up government, performance management, and improvement of client services, to name a few. The problem is that each developed country has its own menu of best practices in achieving these renewal goals and promotes them as superior to others.

Our collective ability to achieve only limited success using the best practices approach is well documented. The World Bank’s extensive study of international governance improvement projects published in 2000 concluded that of several hundred projects over 77 percent fell short of their objectives or had benefits that ended as soon as the project was over. Research by Keith Grint, professor of public leadership and management at Warwick Business School, concludes that 75 percent of management improvement programs fail on their own terms.

The main conclusion to be drawn from these countless experiences is that it is incredibly difficult to transplant our notion of a best practice in foreign soil. Henry Mintzberg goes further, suggesting: “The passive importation of techniques, controls, and beliefs [best practices] via outside agencies and experts that run around solving everyone else’s problems, may be the very problem of development.”

Why is it that our own set of best practices rarely takes root and flourishes elsewhere? Most international development agencies conclude that the reason is the lack of indigenous capacity and therefore intensify training. However, anyone who has worked in developing countries knows that an abundance of management training has had little effect on public sector improvement.

The fact is that many public services in developing countries are both academically and managerially better trained (proportions of higher degrees from prestigious institutions, quality of instruction and days of training received) than our own cadre of public sector managers. Therefore, the cause of low success rates of transferring best practices is not the lack of formation or knowledge.

One reason for failure is our own ethnocentrism. As human beings we naturally believe that our best practices and experiences are in fact, well, the best! However, as Peter Drucker observed, “every institution speaks its own language, has its own knowledge, its own career ladder, and, above all, its own values.” Jong S. Jun maintains that the result of the introduction of best practices from developed to developing countries is a complete failure and often produces negative consequences. It seems that our understanding of other cultures is limited by our own established mental frames and experiences that are not always helpful in other cultural contexts.

Building on values, history and context
Perhaps we should start at another place…how did developed nations develop? In virtually no cases did they depend upon outside experts. They developed through their own indigenous efforts. Canada found its own way as did the U.S., U.K., Japan, Australia, Germany, France and others.

After thinking through this issue, Mintzberg and Jun make a strong case for what we call smart practice rather than best practice. The notion of best practice has flaws. First, it pays little attention to values, history or context. Mintzberg maintains that there is nothing in the globalization of management ideas “that responds to host country conditions, save cosmetic modifications to the products and the ideology for local consumption…” This approach, he continues, “does not build on a country’s unique strengths, does not respect its social traditions, and does not allow the autonomy necessary to grow smart leaders and enterprises.” Jun makes a strong case for the meaningful inclusion of stakeholders and citizens in policy development, implementation, program delivery and monitoring of policy and programs.

Second, best practices are invariably recast as technical projects with a beginning and an end that are adopted by technically minded public sector managers and development agencies because it makes them easy to manage – the “project trap.” However, as experience demonstrates, little sustainable improvement is observable after these projects end. For example, implementing kiosks to deliver some government transactions may improve service but have little effect on the service culture of a public sector organization.

Best practices rarely improve the relationship between governors and governed. In other words, if citizens are not seen as valued individuals and groups deserving of quality and timely services, a kiosk will do little to improve the relationship between them and their government. Similarly, having attributes such as a code of ethics, anti-corruption act or rules for declaration of assets often has little impact on improving behavior, trust or corruption levels.

Facing wicked problems
Because most public sector managers pride themselves as relentless simplifiers, they quickly and often uncritically latch onto best practices precisely because they help simplify the complex problems of governance and organizational improvement interventions into neat easy-to-comprehend components.

Effecting significant governance and organizational improvement represent what Grint calls wicked problems that have no simple answers because they are novel, complex and bring with them high degrees of uncertainty and ambiguity. Tame problems have elegant solutions that are relatively short term, operational and can be managed top down. The resolution of wicked problems requires strategic leadership, involvement of whole systems and engagement of a full range of stakeholders. The best practice approach deceives us into seeing wicked problems as tame manageable ones and leads us to conclude that complex problems, such as improving governance in Haiti or Guyana, can be solved with technical interventions.

Broader research and experience demonstrate that technocratic interventions alone seldom achieve their planned outcomes. Sustainable governance and organizational improvement, like a three legged stool, needs all legs to be effective. In addition to technical interventions, two other props are essential: political or stakeholder and citizen engagement and cultural change.

Best practice interventions are too often one-legged. Smart practice starts with what will work here and now in this specific context and recognizes that without political and stakeholder ownership and cultural change, the reform initiative will not be sustainable. The challenge is that dealing with all three components is more difficult and unpredictable than starting and ending a technical project.

A different kind of leadership and management is required. An approach that separates policy and strategy from delivery and the recipients of services – a model of externally imposed change – should be replaced with engaging management that views an organization as an interacting network that spawns strategies, engages people, sol

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