The Better Governance Project

Research corner.

Deep dive into our world.

Our philosophy and work are influenced by the latest research on development assistance and change in public organisations. How we work is inspired by development-focused approaches such as Doing Development Differently and Adaptive Management, but also borrows a lot from the Organisational Change Management and public sector performance improvement literature.

On this page you can find an overview of what we consider some key approaches, and resources to learn more about each of them.

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Doing Development Differently

Doing Development Differently represents a shift in how development practitioners think about achieving change. An umbrella term that some say describes several, overlapping approaches, collectively it emphasises the importance of solving concrete local problems, recognising and working with (as opposed to against) the local context, and embracing a flexible and adaptive project or programme design.

Problem-driven Iterative Adaptation

Problem-driven Iterative Adaptation is an approach developed by Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. In their ground-breaking book from 2017, they summarise it as follows:

“[…] we propose strategies that begin with generating locally nominated and prioritized problems, and that work iteratively to identify customized “best fit” responses (sometimes by exploiting the existing variation in implementation outcomes), in the process working with an expanding community of practice to share and learn at scale.” (Andrews et al., 2017, p.5)


Originally, Systems Thinking was developed as a tool to understand, analyse and impact on how complex systems work. In recent times, development practitioners have shown increasing interest in utilising Systems Thinking to inform projects and programmes. Though this process of translating Systems Thinking into practice is still in its early stages, some promising practical approaches have already been developed, such as the market systems approach (SIDA, 2018), Systemcraft (Wasafiri, 2022), or System-led Thinking, by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO, 2020).

Thinking and Working Politically

Thinking and Working Politically emphasises the need to recognise the relevance of context-specific political structures and processes for development cooperation. As such, development programmes are encouraged to understand and respond to these structures – and engage with them as political actors themselves. The approach places a strong focus on political analysis (often in the form of political economy analysis), an enhanced awareness of and interaction with local political structures and actors, and an improved capacity to be flexible and adaptable in programme design and implementation.

Pockets of Effectiveness

In short, Pockets of Effectiveness are “[…] …public organisations that are relatively effective in providing public goods and services that the organisation is officially mandated to provide, despite operating in an environment in which effective public service delivery is not the norm” (Roll, 2014, p.24). From a practitioner standpoint, we think Pockets of Effectiveness are of interest for two big reasons. First, given their relative effectiveness, these public organisations might represent suitable partners for co-designing and co-implementing projects and programmes with a comparatively higher chances of impact. Secondly, a core assumption of this school of thought – which we believe in – is that pockets of effectiveness can spillover to other parts of the public sector, helping diffuse the drive and effectiveness seen in the first ‘pocket’.

Mission-Driven Bureaucrats

Spearheaded by Dan Honig, the concept of Mission-driven Bureaucrats advocates for a more flexible, trust-based, and supportive style of bureaucratic oversight, based on the intrinsic motivation of public servants to help people through the positions they fill. As such, the concept implies a change in basic understanding of the nature of public servants who predominantly seek to assist people and execute their roles faithfully – rather than being lazy and corruptible. With its novel understanding of bureaucratic systems and public servants, the concept of Mission-driven Bureaucrats can improve the effectiveness of governance assistance.


adaptive management

Adaptive Management and the concept of Mission-driven Bureaucrats seek to challenge the common perceptions that bureaucratic systems inherently require rigid and static mechanisms of accountability and control. Instead, their proponents advocate for a more flexible, trust-based, and supportive style of bureaucratic oversight, which harvests the intrinsic motivation of public servants to help people through the positions they fill. In governance assistance, it provides utility for two central aspects of the work. First, using theories and principles of Adaptive Management can critically inform the desired outcomes of projects and programmes, when working with public organisations. In this sense, it yields a similar perspective as Mission-driven Bureaucrats. Second, the design of the project or programme structures themselves can be improved by considering Adaptive Management.