Bringing the case study method to public sector training in developing countries: some early lessons

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Workshop training in a local community in Brazil. Photo: Julio Pantoja / World Bank Workshop training in a local community in Brazil. Photo: Julio Pantoja / World Bank

Case studies are a valued training tool for mid-career professionals.  Harvard’s case-based training is world-famous. How come the public sector in developing countries has lagged in adopting this widely used instruction method? 

Context and cost are two reasons. The available cases may not relate to the operating environments of public servants in developing countries, and they are costly to use. Fortunately, Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies program (ISS), The Leadership Academy for Development at Stanford, and the Global Delivery Initiative, among others, are helping address these two core constraints with a growing library of cases based on actual events, available online without cost, on public sector reform efforts from around the developing world. 

Problem solved? Not really. Over the last few years, we have explored the practicalities of using ISS cases for public sector training in Myanmar. Some early lessons have emerged. The need for a variety of content, for example, is limitless, and translations are needed. However, much more needs to be done to mainstream these high-quality resources into public sector training. 

Building on the ISS cases, we developed detailed guidance for trainers, relevant for Myanmar but also for other developing country contexts, on how to organize a discussion with specific questions to be used to guide face-to-face instruction for a three to four-hour session on various subjects. These modules, each consisting of two cases, focus on general topics, including social accountability, leadership, performance management, and procurement. The ultimate objective: training a cadre of local trainers who use these “cheat sheets” to deliver better training. 

Predictably, especially given the low baseline of public sector training quality in Myanmar, we found when delivering these modules that participants enthusiastically welcome the discussion, interaction, and practical details. They like learning about other countries and are comforted by the knowledge that many countries face similar challenges. Quite likely, as is the case with this training tool, retention is high. 

Mainstreaming the case method, however, faces many challenges.  Most available cases, mainly intended for self-study by a general professional audience, are not written to guide class discussion. Identifying relevant cases and preparing teaching plans requires considerable investment of skill, time, and effort. Class sizes are large, inhibiting interaction. Participants may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with interactive questioning and discussion, particularly in groups of mixed seniority. A more mundane problem: participants are not used to absorbing reading material ahead of the classes. 

These challenges can be addressed with iterative adaptation. Specific questions and issues can be identified in the teaching notes, time for reading the cases allocated during the training, and large classes divided into small groups. More cases, including short fictional ones, are also being made available by more organizations, improving relevance. 

This first set of trainings was conducted by Bank staff, mainly to stress-test the modules for further tweaking. But that was only the first step of the process. What about the core goal of developing a cadre of local trainers for sustained delivery of these modules?  

Unfortunately, the training of local trainers could not be conducted because of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, the experience of teaching these cases indicates that though the notes definitely help reduce the bar for successful facilitation, the capacity constraint can’t be eliminated. For one, the participants ask unanticipated questions and naturally expect more knowledge and expertise from the trainer. Guiding participants to engage in discussion and grapple with open-ended questions requires strong domain knowledge and pedagogical skill. 

While training of trainer programs, some of which are available internationally, including from Stanford, can help train instructors, the capacity of government trainers is indeed a structural constraint. Still, detailed facilitation notes may help a small cadre, including trainers from the nonprofit and public sectors, to enhance content and delivery. Not a radical transformation, but very likely useful. 

Strengthening public sector training is a major endeavor. The use of the case method is merely one of the many short, medium, and long-term interventions that will help address this critical constraint. Even using free resources in a sustainable and locally relevant way for instructional purposes in the public sector, as we have attempted, requires considerable effort. Well worth pursuing, though. 


Zubair Bhatti

Sr. Public Sector Management Specialist

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