Form without Function: Shortcomings of the Straight Path

Source: Slideshare of Lant Pritchett’s presentation, 11 October 2011,

Isomorphic mimicry is a biological term referring to different organisms evolving to look similar without actually being related. A certain species of snakes may imitate the colours of a poisonous cousin without being venomous. Evolutionary biology has given it the ability to mimic certain attributes to save it from predators. Adopting form without function is a way to describe it.

This is the problem with a lot of development aid that tries to transplant institutions of governance from the West into less-developed states. Evidence suggests that such attempts have by and large failed to live up to expectations. My own personal experience as a development consultant bears this out.

Last year I managed a project designed to develop and select mid-to-senior bureaucrats. The agency I was assisting looked for rigid rules in running the program. Unwilling to leave anything to chance, it sought to create templates and handbooks for everything, when all that was needed was a bit of common sense and some flexibility to allow the system to adapt and evolve over time.

What often happens is that the rules developed become so rigid, that programs like this simply fail due to their inability to work under real world settings. Perversely, in seeking to mimic first world institutions, they end up making a mockery of them. We can find instances of this occurring in different arenas:

  • In the PPP’s or Public Private Partnerships which the government spruiked as its solution to the infrastructure problem, implementation has been hampered with delays due to the highly contested, complex set of rules which were adopted for awarding contracts (case in point was the Calax deal).
  • In public financial management programs which include the procurement of public works and transport-related assets, the chronic “underspend” for public works and transport upgrades have impeded economic activity and caused major inconveniences to the public.
  • With the release of the post-disaster relief funds to victims of Typhoon Yolanda and other natural calamities, distribution has been hampered by rules for identifying and documenting genuine victims and distinguishing them from ineligible recipients.

Though the government instituted rules in these policy areas with noble intentions of rooting out corruption, they have had the unintended side-effect of rendering service slow or ineffective. In response to criticism, the government has been hesitant to even recognize that a problem exists. Its supporters claim that negative comments are part of a general plot to discredit it and tear its reform agenda down.

While it may admit that its adoption of stringent rules has hamstrung its response to many national development priorities and emergencies, the government claims that its policies have improved the system of governance from what it was before.

Isomorphism, whether sincere or insincere, does serve a purposeto introduce some formality in the way the state operates. But while rules instituted could deter “predators” that want to game the system, they could equally repel other parties that don’t have ill motives. Returning to my  personal example above, if the process for selecting senior public officials becomes too elaborate, it could discourage able and competent people outside government from even applying.

The whole thrust of stripping discretion from bureaucrats to prevent corruption has bred a lot of complex rule-making in government. Perhaps rather than reducing discretion in decision-making, what the state needs to do is radically simplify rules and organizational structures, to make it easy to hold public officials to account.

The tanim bala incidents involving airport security personnel allegedly planting contraband in the luggage of travelers and extorting money from them shows how complex, fragmented bureaucracies can run amuck. No one within the dense structure of NAIA and the Department of Transport took responsibility for dealing with it, or even recognized that it was a problem to begin with. Managers stuck to the line that they were simply following and enforcing the rules.

These rule-bound bureaucrats have lost their ability to think, exercise judgement and act responsibly. A phenomenon such as tanim bala required managers to work outside their operating zones and focus on solving the problem, rather than worry about whether they would be stepping out of their legal and administrative mandate.