Category Archives: My Research

The MacGyver Principle

MacGyverToday we continue with the theme of continuity in program implementation. Last time I explained continuity in terms of Duplos. Today we’ll come at the same idea from an different angle.

Members of my generation don’t need to have actually watched MacGyver to know about the show’s trope of assembling creative contraptions out of odds and ends in order to get out of a tricky situation. Indeed, it has even become a verb, as in “to MacGyver something.”

While thinking about program design and implementation after my time in the field, I thought about expressing one of my dissertation’s arguments as “The MacGyver principle”: make what you need out of what you have (if you Google the phrase you’ll find many others have already used it, and with several different meanings; but many are along the same lines as this post). No jack to lift fallen debris and set people free? Use a fire hose as a makeshift hydraulic. No sealant for the leaking tank of acid? Use bars of chocolate. Continue reading

Policy continuity illustrated with Duplos

duplo-blocksA while back I wrapped up a series of posts about complexity and program implementation. Now its time to move on to continuity.

My fieldwork in Brasília overlapped with both rounds of Brazil’s 2010 election, so I got to see a lot of campaign ads on TV. This ad was my favorite, and inspired one of the central arguments in my dissertation. It’s by Agnelo Queiroz, who was the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate for Governor of the Federal District. (He won the election). I think that the images communicate a lot even without understanding Portuguese. My translation, after the break.

Complexity Posts, In Chronological Order

Blogs, by their very nature, organize posts in reverse chronological order. As I’ve been writing this series of blog posts about complexity, I’ve been linking back to the earlier ones. To make things easier to read them in order, I’ve set up a page called Blog Series with the posts listed that way. I’ll use it for future series, too. For your convenience, here they are:

The politics of complexity in program implementation

This post will wrap up my series on complexity and program implementation, though I’m sure I’ll return to the topic. In When Things Break I presented the idea of asking  what happens when one part of a system breaks. In The Broken ATM I discussed experiences during fieldwork in rural Brazil that got me thinking along these lines. Then in Wiring Government Programs in Series or Parallel I summarized Pressman and Wildavsky’s argument that the more “clearances” a program needs the more likely it is to fail.  Criticism of the complexity argument and Criticism of the complexity argument, continued summarized some responses to this approach. This post looks what practical knowledge we can take away from all this.

There’s an old joke about every academic title needing  a colon (my titles generally conform to this convention…). Not to be outdone, Pressman and Wildavsky’s title has a semi-colon, too:

Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland; Or Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All, This being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration as Told by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes 

This hints at some of the political implications of their work. To understand this we need to look at what was going on around the time they published the book and how their argument could be used to support the anti-government backlash of the 1980’s. In spite of this, I think we can still take something away from their insight about complexity. Once we take into account criticisms like those surveyed earlier, I’d argue that instead of conceding that “It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work at All,” we are left with one consideration for how to make government programs work better. Continue reading

Criticism of the complexity argument, continued

This is part of a series of posts about complexity and implementation. In When Things Break I presented the idea of asking  what happens when one part of a system breaks. In The Broken ATM I discussed experiences during fieldwork in rural Brazil that got me thinking along these lines. Then in Wiring Government Programs in Series or Parallel I summarized Pressman and Wildavsky’s argument that the more “clearances” a program needs the more likely it is to fail.  Criticism of the complexity argument summarized one line of criticism of their approach. This post looks at another response.

Last time, I looked at one response to Pressman and Wildavsky: their assumptions about how often individual components stymie the whole project are completely arbitrary. We live in a world where we are surrounded by complex systems where functioning well is the norm and expectation (and others that provide endless frustration… but we’ll get to that).

Elinor R. Bowen proposed modifications to the joint-probability approach. Again, joint probability is the probability of several things happening together: so the joint probability of two coins both flipping heads at the same time is (.5)(.5)= .25. She offers four addendums which result in a much more optimistic outlook, and which she argues are reasonable descriptions of many policy implementation processes. We’ll look at the first three (I give a reference to the article at the end of this post). Continue reading

Criticism of the complexity argument

Rube Goldberg Machine

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

This is the next in a series of posts about complexity and implementation. In When Things Break I presented the idea of asking  what happens when one part of a system breaks. In The Broken ATM I discussed experiences during fieldwork in rural Brazil that got me thinking along these lines. Then in Wiring Government Programs in Series or Parallel I summarized Pressman and Wildavsky’s argument that the more “clearances” a program needs the more likely it is to fail. 

The most obvious response to Pressman and Wildavsky is that complicated things work without breaking all the time. Ernest R. Alexander writes:

…when they are routine they go unnoticed: they are so much the stuff of our daily lives that we take them for granted. The product of an incredibly complex series of technological and organizational inter- dependencies is the ‘on-time’ arrivalof your flight, the completion of your telephone call, or the fact of your accident–and incident–free drive on the highway. These only surface to our consciousness in their absence: when the flight is late or our baggage is lost, when our call to Bangkok ends up in Bucaramanga, or when we find ourselves stuck in solid steel on the Santa Monica freeway.

Continue reading

How Cover Oregon fits into my discussion of complexity

I’m part way through a series of posts about the politics of implementation. In When Things Break I presented the idea of one broken piece undermining a larger whole. The Broken ATM discussed this idea in the context of doing fieldwork in a rural municipality of the northeastern state of Piauí in Brazil. Then Wiring Government in Series or in Parallel summarized some of the literature making similar arguments to my thoughts about the more places a program can break, the more likely it is to do so. I still need to summarize some key criticisms of that literature, but in this post I want to write about how that perspective might help us understand some of the problems with Cover Oregon. Continue reading