“We need to move beyond ‘governance matters,’” said co-director of the report Yongmei Zhou. “We have countless examples in which countries establish good laws but then fail to get the implementation in place.”
She is referring to what others have been calling isomorphic mimicry: “the adoption of the forms of other functional states and organizations which camouflages a persistent lack of function.” If you’ve ever used the phrase “best practice” in international development, you’re probably guilty of perpetuating isomorphic mimicry. A country will adopt your “best practice” but it likely won’t work for them.
If you’re still confused, watch this video on “How to Build a Country from Scratch.”
The WDR will depart from previous governance talk by shifting the dialogue of “governance matters” to focus concretely on three things:
1. Function, not just form, matters for real governance reform. We can’t just adopt “best practices”.
2. Understanding power is critical to governance reform. We’ve spent too much time thinking only of technical capacity.
3. Social norms are just as important, if not more so, as law. We need to find ‘norm entrepreneurs’ to shift what’s socially sanctioned.
At Feedback Labs, we talk about constituent feedback as a way to promote more democratic governance in sectors that are very undemocratic— aid and philanthropy.
In this way, we are strangely also in the business of doing governance reform.
What if we applied the WDR’s three points to how we are thinking about changing governance within aid and philanthropy?
We have to move beyond “feedback matters”. Is collecting feedback—by using the Net Promoter System or with other surveys— mere isomorphic mimicry? Something that looks good but maybe doesn’t actually do anything?
The Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted a survey of nonprofits to understand how many were listening to their beneficiaries. The report finds that 99% of nonprofits collect beneficiary feedback while designing programs/services, 95% during provision of programs/services, and 92% after provision of programs/services.
These numbers are high. I’m a skeptic at heart (or I’ve simply been in the industry for too long) and so I wonder, is this collection of feedback merely a case of form over function?
At Feedback Labs we emphasize not just the collection of feedback—an easy “best practice” that can look good in form—but actually closing the loop. Closing the loop is about function not just form. It requires collecting feedback but then also, analyzing it, having a dialogue with constituents about it, and actually course-correcting based on those discussions. It’s about looking at power (not just capacity) and social norms (in the absence of laws).
This is how real governance reform happens.