Positive Deviant vs. Mapped Solution

January 16, 2023

Positive Deviance in Social Sciences

The method of Positive Deviance (PD) has been used in social sciences since the 1970s. However, it seems that researchers have underestimated its importance. The PD approach allows us to note behavioral and social observations about uncommon but successful behaviors of individuals or communities that enable them to find better solutions to a problem and reach desired outcomes. Despite facing similar challenges and restrictions, some individuals or groups are able to make a difference. In the research discourse, they are referred to as Positive Deviants.

We have more digital data available than ever before. DATAREPORTAL releases both global (and in our case) national reports on North Macedonia, giving some indications on how the digital landscape is moving in the countries.


The exponential growth of digital data justifies revisiting the PD approach. When deploying this method, the objective is to harness an ocean of data. There is a great possibility to tap into traditional (statistics, other surveys and the quantitative digital data) and non-traditional (crowed sourced, or collective intelligence) data that would essentially lead us to acquire new knowledge, and more importantly, look at wider landscapes, whole population, and thematic intersections that are not covered with traditional datasets. In a recent paper “Data-powered positive deviance: Combining traditional and non-traditional data to identify and characterise development-related outperformers,” Albanna et al. (2022) argue that “the growing availability of non-traditional digital data (e.g., from remote sensing and mobile phones) relating to individuals, communities and spaces enables data innovation opportunities for positive deviance. Such datasets can identify deviance at geographic and temporal scales that were not possible before.”

Data Powered Positive Deviance (DPPD) is a global initiative that has been collaboratively created by GIZ Data LabPulse Lab JakartaUNDP Accelerator Labs Network, and the University of Manchester Centre for Digital Development. By applying the DPPD method, researchers and policymakers are able to identify grassroots solutions using a combination of digital data. The DPPD approach seeks to identify outperformers to understand and replicate their strategies and practices within a community (DPPD Handbook, 2021).

Let the Data Speak

Inspired by the Open Finance data portal provided by the Ministry of Finance, we are able to tap into granular data and individual transactions of each of the 81 municipalities in North Macedonia (including country’s capital, the City of Skopje). We combine Open Finance data with traditional data from structured interviews with local public officials and mayors as well as official financial and human resources data for the 2017-2020 period.

We focused on the following areas of citizen-centered local public financial management: (1) participatory budgeting; (2) bottom-up approach; (3) budget revisions per year; (4) publishing end-of-year financial reports; (5) searchable budget reporting; (6) overspending; (7) mobilizing funds (resources); (8) municipal profile; and (9) partnerships with Local Civil Society Organizations.

While financial data and human resources data were readily available, we had to make assessments of other important aspects of citizen-centered financial management, such as the degree of participatory budgeting, reliance on the bottom-up approach to incorporating citizen initiatives, etc. For some aspects, there was no centralized database, so we had to talk to and manually inspect the municipal websites. For instance, the information on how many budget revisions is performed throughout the year is only available from direct contacts with local financial officers.

Institutions are reluctant to publish data. This can be due to a decision: (1) to stay in the comfort zone; and/or (2) to keep it a low profile and maintain low transparency for a weaker public scrutiny. What can we do more to open up data? Here, we highlight the role of legal framework for mandatory publishing of important data for the citizens and the expert public. After all, transparency and accountability can promote good practices and serve as an early warning system. Transparency is also very important to identify positive examples among municipalities, identify and share their ingredients of success.

Identifying Outperforming Municipalities

The research team reached a consensus that it would be methodologically inappropriate to compare all municipalities as if they were in the same category. Let us say, the small municipality of Zrnovci with 3,246 inhabitants has a different fiscal and administrative capacity compared to the large municipality of Centar with 50,616 inhabitants. They differ in size, population density, and amenities; the first being rural one and the second - urban one. They also substantially differ in terms of their fiscal capacity and capacity for provision of local public services.

For this reason, we categorize the 81 municipalities into three distinct groups: small, medium-sized, and large ones. According to the official classification by the Ministry of Information Society and Administration (MISA) small municipalities have population size less than 10,000 inhabitants, medium-sized municipalities between 10,001 and 50,000 inhabitants and large municipalities have more than 50,000 inhabitants. Out of 81 municipalities, 33 are small municipalities, 35 are medium-sized and 13 are large municipalities (incl. the capital, the City of Skopje). Each group is treated as a separate category or a sub-sample. Put differently we identify positive deviants in each size category.

Key Challenges in Mapping Solutions

The process of looking and collecting qualitative data on the positive deviants among the municipalities in North Macedonia led to a couple of solutions that the local authorities have identified and successfully applied. These solutions are grouped in several categories, closely examining different aspects of the key ingredients for success. Different groups of solutions that worked were attributed to the human/people factors, tools and methods used, systems and procedures in place, as well as the enabling environment.  For us it is very easy to name a software or a method of work as a solution in place, and these are quantifiable. However, the more interesting part in this research is being able to tap into the attitudes of learning financial officers. The study was able to prove a great understanding on how these attitudes, communication as well as building the capacities of the local professional staff is a key to fiscal resilience, and solid management at local level. Examples of positive deviants demonstrate that they have a long-term strategic focus on employment. They recruit sufficient and quality personnel in their finance department, as well as invest in in-house mentoring and professional training for the work.

Let us use this blog, as an announcement of the upcoming DPPD study in North Macedonia, the full report planned to be published in the upcoming days. Stay tuned.