The paradoxes of the long-distance governance adviser

By Graham Teskey

A Governance Advisor’s notebook: Alternative ideas and Approaches

In 2014, an idea was hatched in the Paris-based GovNet. Yes really. At that time, David Yang, now Vice President at the United States Institute for Peace, and I were GovNet’s two co-chairs. Alan Whaites, a senior governance adviser on secondment from DFID, was the head of the network’s Governance Secretariat. We wanted to produce a guide demonstrating what being a governance adviser was really like. We wanted a publication that was different. We wanted a guide that was readable. We wanted a guide that may even be amusing. Rather surprisingly, the powers that be in Paris agreed and nine months later, A Governance Practitioner’s Notebook was published.

The main character in the notebook is Lucy, a neophyte governance adviser. I suggested we call her Lucy in honour of the first humans, from whom we have derived many of our norms, values and informal ‘rules of the game’ of life.  

Much to our dismay the ‘Practitioner’s Notebook’ never reached the Amazon best sellers’ list. Well to be more precise it never reached Amazon full stop. So in lieu of international travel I am re-introducing Lucy to the world. In what is Chapter 3 of the Notebook, Lucy writes a note to herself in advance of her first trip overseas. 

Starting out in a new job in a new organisation is a daunting task for most people. There is just so much stuff to learn: rules and regulations, systems and structures, people, and processes. Then there are the informal rules of the game – is it ok to make a joke in office meetings? Am I allowed to disagree with my boss? And usually before you have had time to settle down and understand how things really work (rather than how the office manual describes it) you actually are given some real work to do.

This is the situation that Lucy found herself in: she is told to get on a ‘plane and fly off and actually advise.  She feels it’s almost a test – the aim of which is to find her out, to prove that it’s true: “you really don’t know anything about the real world, do you?”. Once Lucy gets over the shock of being asked to express her views and make proposals and recommendations, she discovers many challenges along the way. We can see from the ‘Notebook’ that Lucy is well educated and academically up to date on all the debates in development and governance. For any Head of Governance, she is an ideal newbie.

But as she has matured and grown over the past five years, she has discovered a number of paradoxes of the long-distance governance adviser. The first paradox she realised quickly. Lucy has been tasked with understanding and quickly becoming ‘expert’ on the political economy and institutional context of a foreign country, yet she will never be able fully to understand those systems. Position matters. Lucy is a woman, and a young, foreign woman at that. While this opened some doors for her, it gave her another set of more uncomfortable insights too. Governance is about power and Lucy found that power is about identity, privilege, age and gender. Her age and her sex was against her in those early days, and in some countries they continue to constrain her.

Lucy’s second paradox followed soon after. As she gained experience, expectations of her increased and was required to be more certain in her judgements and recommendations. Yet simultaneously, Lucy herself became aware of just how much she did not know – about country context, about trajectories of change, about debates in the literature, and about the uncertainty of the evidence. The more she learned, the less she knew. This nagging angst remains with Lucy to this day.

On returning home after her first overseas trip, Lucy submitted her carefully crafted and spell-checked 18 page back-to-office report. She was dismayed when her line manager returned her lovely report asking for a shorter version, omitting all the academic guff and the conceptualisations. He wanted more specificity on results and the time frame.  On many successive journeys home (now in economy class, with no room to spread out her lap-top and work), Lucy pondered the history, context, culture and all rules of the game in the country she has just visited. In her notebook, she sketched out options and projects that her organisation may wish to fund. In articulating them she knew full well how vulnerable her ideas were to assumptions and uncertainty. After a couple of stiff drinks on board, she usually calms down and feels increasingly confident she can write convincing pieces explaining why the initiatives she proposes are relevant.

Lucy does this by drawing on her growing experience and appreciation of local context, and the international evidence. Over time, she discovered the third paradox of the long-distance governance adviser, one that is rooted in the political economy of her own organisation: the divide between rhetoric and reality. Development agencies usually say the right thing about the importance of detailed and careful analysis, context, and history. But in reality, these agencies – and especially senior officials and Ministers – prize certainty, brevity, and simplicity. Senior colleagues are just too busy to read more than two or three pages of single-spaced font size 12 text, and their calendars too full to allow them to delve deeply into issues. They want crisp text with clear recommendations specifying costs and outputs (and preferably outcomes). This is not a criticism: it is just how it is. We all know it. But it took Lucy a few years to work this out.

More recently, Lucy has learned how to use analytical concepts to frame discussions and pose questions without laborious references to the great, the good or the most recent insightful blog post or journal article. In so doing she discovered a fourth paradox: in her role as an adviser, Lucy always finds herself wanting to ask questions, and to explore development options. But to Lucy, it seemed that program management don’t want this – they seemed to want to close things down, to narrow the parameters of the analysis and move on to the next item on the agenda.

In short, Lucy is interested in arguing to a conclusion, where her colleagues seem to want to argue to a decision. And a decision that may not reflect all the evidence she has laid on the table – in her (what she thinks are excellent) back-to-office reports. So Lucy has a choice. Take the hard route (become known for pushing the technically best answer and arguing for complexity at the risk of becoming ‘black listed’ as the trouble maker) or the easy route (tow the organisational line and compromise on her analysis in return for access and acceptance)?

With her growing wisdom, Lucy has landed somewhere in the middle. Lucy now understands the political economy of the organisation she works, and uses this to push her agenda. This means occasionally compromising on some things, but mostly finding ways to push for change by linking it to a political narrative, getting the support of senior staff and critically…the art of timing. 

With all these new skills, Lucy has now been promoted. She is doing well and has become a respected part of her organisation. But Lucy still worries that she does not quite fit in with the bureaucratic culture. Sometimes she feels this angst, this loneliness. However, as with all good fairy tales, this story may yet have a happy ending. I would like to imagine that one day in the future Lucy will peer review an ex-post evaluation of one of the projects that eventuated from her first mission five years ago. I imagine Lucy taking home the document – in soft copy of course now that the department has gone paper free – and reads it with growing interest and amazement. It appears that many of her recommendations were considered by the design team, and the Managing Contractor had stuck to the plan! Amazing!

The results table shows that – give or take a few complete flops (which are ok as the project was ‘doing development differently’ – the development fad at the time) the program was pretty successful.  On a number of counts (relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, equity, impact) the program was judged “highly successful”. In the report Lucy saw echoes of her initial judgements about opportunities to be taken, risks to be born and assumptions to be checked. She is astonished. And here lies the fourth paradox of the long-distance governance adviser: Lucy labours in the short-term, in the here and now of gritty politics and all the uncertainties of stuff happening, while it is usually only in the long term, after many years have passed, are we able to see the value – or otherwise – of our work.

Here’s to Lucy!

Read the unabridged version of Lucy’s notebook here.

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