Studying of Positive Deviance to drive state and public service reforms

7 de Diciembre de 2022
UNDP Paraguay / Katia Gorostiaga

We often read news stories exposing problems with public services and reports focused on explaining the causes of public servants’ poor performance.  On the one hand, there are certain deep-rooted ills in public administration, such as corruption and clientelism, which hinder the fulfillment of public policies and generate high levels of distrust among citizens and users of public services. On the other hand, the working conditions of civil servants who provide direct services citizens ("street-level bureaucrats ") are often a limiting factor: lack of infrastructure, shortage of supplies, inadequate salaries, work overload, and rigid bureaucratic rules, among other factors, are important barriers to their positive performance and fulfillment of public objectives. 

How often do we ask ourselves the opposite question: what are the causes of positive performance in the public sector?  In Paraguay, as everywhere, there are many successful cases from which to learn of state officials who achieved positive results that benefit entire populations. In this blog we present a methodological guide for the investigation of cases of positive deviation in the performance of street-level bureaucrats, derived from the learning loop we carried out on the topic as part of the UNDP Paraguay Acceleration Lab.   

What kind of officials are we talking about? The public administration literature names "street-level bureaucrats" as those public servants who perform functions in direct relation with citizens, with little supervision from their superiors and, normally, with insufficient resources, time, and infrastructure to respond to the demands of their clients and fully comply with the purpose of the public policies under their charge. Consequently, these workers face the pressures and tensions of providing quality service to a large number of people with limited resources and highly constraining bureaucratic rules. Street-level bureaucrats almost always receive negative evaluations by citizens, who complain of adequate services and unfairness in the distribution of services.  

This place occupied by street-level bureaucrats at the bottom of the state bureaucracy inevitably gives them a measure of discretion in the use of public resources. This permits, on the one hand, typical situations of “poor performance” in which public workers divert public resources to satisfy personal or private demands. On the other hand, their discretion also permits street-level bureaucrats to innovate and optimize the use of public resources in ways that not contemplated by rigid bureaucratic rules. Although this kind of “positive deviance” may not be the norm, it provides valuable learning opportunities for the design of bureaucratic reforms to improve public services based on evidence of what is already working.  

Examining positive deviance in the public sector means asking ourselves a series of questions: Who are the positive deviants in public institutions? Do they have different motivations than their peers? Why and how do they do they find new strategies to improve public services? What are the organizational relationships and practices from which positive deviance and commitment to public value emerges from within the public sector? And what community practices and relationships with civil society contribute to positive deviance?  

If we can answer these questions, we can map these patterns and create a framework for understanding how positive performance is achieved in public services and develop reforms to generalize and expand the conditions that produce public workers’ commitment with public value. Our methodological toolkit provides a tool to start the journey toward answering these questions.  

The toolkit offers a series of simple and practical steps to frame a research project on positive deviance focused on any type of public service. The toolkit lays out the methodology starting with choosing the public service to be investigated, to identifying and characterizing the profiles of the relevant street-level bureaucrats, to defining case selection criteria for positive deviations and suggesting methods for analyzing the results and extracting lessons to improve the public service. For each step, it provides examples from our learning loop on positive deviance in local public health services in Paraguay to guide future work on positive deviance among public servants in other sectors Paraguay or elsewhere. 

In the next blogposts in this series, we will present the research process and main the lessons that arose from applying these methods to study positive deviance of community health agents working in Family Health Units as part of the Primary Health Care Program of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare in Paraguay. 

Written by: Gustavo Setrini, Mónica Ríos, Cristhian Parra, Claudia Montanía, Juan Carlos Pane, Patricia Lima, Pedro Perez y Katia Gorostiaga