The governance community’s Tootsie Pop problem

27 August 2019
The governance community’s Tootsie Pop problem
WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation Graeme Ramshaw explores how in governance, looking at how and why things happen can be just as important as the end result.

After several months immersed in content on politics and development, thinking and working politically (TWP), and adaptive management, my mind is awash with ‘wicked problems’, intractable problems, and complexity. More than 20 years since DFID first dipped its toe into the governance discourse and over a decade since the 2006 white paper that put politics into DFID’s approach, we have made a lot more progress in describing and defining our ambitions in this area than in realising them.

In focusing on the definition of ‘what we want to see’ rather than systematically examining the myriad options of ‘how to make it happen,’ we in the governance community have left our time-sensitive donors seeking tidy solutions to these messy challenges, big or small, that persist in development, despite the time and resources spent on addressing them. DFID’s recent Governance Position Paper’s section on thinking and working politically, for instance, focuses almost exclusively on the importance of integrating political analysis. But this ‘thinking politically’ is, at best, only half the puzzle. A recent paper from the TWP Community of Practice tellingly revealed how few programmes could be labelled genuinely ‘adaptive’ in practice.

With little thought leadership on ‘working politically’ to guide us, we are left to the mercy of the market, which has responded and is now full of tools and methods pitched as the ‘innovative’ way to approach and resolve these difficult problems. In the same way that self-help gurus preach weight loss regimes or easy steps to a better, more effective you, we practitioners are encouraged to embrace specific ways of working on the promise that it is the path to illumination and results. DFID and other donors, under pressure from their political masters, are willing buyers of simplicity and scalability in the form of adaptive management ‘best practice.’ Tasked with tackling intractable problems, however, these ‘solutions’ may instead be exacerbating a different wicked problem – the Tootsie Pop problem.

What do I mean by the Tootsie Pop problem? Growing up in the US, my Saturday morning cartoons were regularly interrupted by an old ad for Tootsie Pops (a vaguely cherry-flavoured lollipop with a chewy centre). In the ad, a boy asks a succession of animals how many licks it takes to get to the centre. Each demurs, claiming to have always had to bite their way to the centre, and encourages him to ask wise, old owl. When the boy does so, the owl takes his Tootsie Pop, licks it twice, and then takes a loud, crunching bite before definitively proclaiming the answer to be three. The ad concludes: “How many licks does it take to get to the centre of a Tootsie Pop? The world may never know.”

The current state of debate around TWP and adaptive management feels similar. We’re all the boy searching for an answer to a difficult question, and we’re all taking shortcuts to the centre. Certain prominent voices play the role of owl, loudly asserting their shortcut to be correct and influencing both donor and other practitioner opinion and practice in their wake. Very infrequently are we encouraged to stick to the hard slog of licking our way to the centre, assiduously monitoring our attempts, until we reach an evidence-based answer.

This is the Tootsie Pop problem. Everyone thinks the goal is the centre of the lollipop, and we are incentivised to find shortcuts and then publicise them widely. This is the path to more funding and greater notoriety. This isn’t, however, resolving the intractable problem. What if the goal isn’t the centre of the lollipop (which was never really that appealing)? What if the process of getting to the centre is what matters?

This strikes me as the core issue with integrating TWP into development work. Is TWP about using political analysis to find easy routes to a mediocre middle? Or is it about engaging with challenging political contexts to help institutions and citizens stick it out through long, potentially sticky, processes of change? For me, adaptive management, thinking and working politically, democracy assistance all depend first and foremost on getting the process right and worrying about the final product later. As long as we continue to prioritise the end result over how it was achieved, understanding what it takes to get to ‘the centre of the Tootsie Pop’ is indeed something we may never know.