Syndicate content

Robert Varenik's Reflections on the Politics of Reform

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Gennadiy Ratushenko (WB)I went to New York with a colleague last week to visit the Open Society Institute (OSI). At CommGAP we are always seeking to win friends and influence networks. We met the Open Society Justice Initiative team. It was a useful and productive meeting. In the course of it, we were given books and reports about the work of the Justice Initiative and OSI generally. This is what happens when you visit organizations working in development: they give you their stuff to read. We do it too. Most of the publications you are asked to take home with you are things you probably will not touch once they find a place of honor on your bookshelf. Of course you intend to read them all; it is just that you hardly ever do. But that day was different. I had found the insights of the Acting Executive Director of the Justice Initiative fascinating. So, in the course of the train journey back to Washington DC I decided to study the volumes we had been given. The one on the work OSI had been doing on  the epidemic of Pretrial Detention caught my attention.

According to the study [Reducing the Excessive Use of Pretrial Detention, OSI, Spring 2008]: 'In 2006, an estimated 7.4 million people around the world were held in detention while awaiting trial - a practice that violates international norms, wastes public resources, undermines the rule of law, and endangers public health. This issue of Justice Initiatives looks at the global over-reliance on pretrial detention and examines the challenges of reducing and reforming its use.' The study contains eight case studies of reform efforts around the world. On the train journey, I read the concluding reflections of Robert Varenik, 'Mixing Politics, Data, and Detention: Reflections on Reform Efforts.' It is an important essay on the politics of governance reform; for its insights apply far beyond the very specialized world of access to justice work.  I would urge you to find and read the entire essay.

I do not want to steal Varenick's thunder, but some of the insights that stand out for me as follows...roughly in my own words:

  1. Successful reform needs two plinths: doing the technical work well and getting the politics right. You need to do both well.
  2. Counterreformers will sometimes be aided by potential beneficiaries of reform efforts, thus acting unwittingly against their own interests.(This is what we call the collective action problem).
  3. The acid test of reform is not merely what you can get done but what you can sustain.
  4. For reforms to succeed and be sustained, you need to build and nurture coalitions strong enough to be effective; for that you need excellent communication influence work.

One of the reasons I have been so struck by this essay is the extent to which it confirms what we have been finding in our own work here. Every area of work in the ever-growing good governance agenda is a technical specialism of some kind. And you have colleagues around the world working in these different areas who are very good at the technical work. Which is as it should be. But when you actually try to implement the good technical solutions to governance challenges under real-world conditions reality invades. Contexts can be obdurate things. Vested interests mobilize. Public opinion is not always benign, although it is always a factor. Therefore, reformers or reform managers have to be able to 'work' the politics of reform. We are learning, for instance, that you need to start the reform process with clear-eyed, context-specific political analysis. Second, you need to work out the influencing and other communication challenges. Where are critical stakeholders in terms of attitudes, opinions and motivation? For you to be successful, where do you need them to be? Third, you have to evolve a strategy; and it has to be sound, properly staffed and funded. The problem, though, is this: it is amazing how many reform efforts are still being started without such a procedure being followed.

Photo Credit: Gennadiy Ratushenko (WB)

Add new comment