Innovations for Successful Societies

Making Government Work in Hard Places

ISS research spans a broad spectrum of situations and challenges—some  that make headlines and others that are below the radar. Take the massive effort to establish legal property titling across Rwanda, where the lack of clear land ownership spawned frequent conflict and limited the economic participation of citizens.  Following up on a four-year project that mapped more than 10 million parcels, the program, which launched in 2012, established a system for registering and transferring land ownership. Rwanda struggled to persuade its newly titled landholders of the need to register all property transactions — a novel idea that gained credence only slowly in the East African country.

Rwanda’s experience highlights a crucial aspect of ISS’s work: to isolate the reasons why one government initiative succeeds while others fail, and why some lead to long-term improvements while others fade away. ISS researchers explore the importance of high-level, continuing support, the value of credibility and consistency, and the complexities presented by cultural norms. It is never simple.

Since 2008, the program’s research has helped public servants improve cabinet coordination, streamline service delivery, reduce corruption, strengthen the security of property rights, mediate conflict, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. Widner seeks to expand assistance to cover requests from leaders in Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Africa, and other countries. ISS also seeks to extend its reach to some of the challenges facing low-income communities in the United States.  

Out of Research: Practicality

Leaders rarely have the time to identify and investigate innovative solutions to problems. That’s where ISS comes in. Widner’s research team does the legwork, collects the essential operational details, adds an analytical edge, and disseminates the ideas in readable form to people who can make a difference now and in the future. The researchers travel to the countries and communities in question and talk to the people who did the heavy lifting, as well as citizen-clients and critics.

The program has an online network of over five thousand leaders. It assists reform leaders directly and through multilateral initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the G7+ (an association of fragile states), and the United Nations. It hosts an online course called “Making Government Work in Hard Places” and helps integrate its materials into management programs and university curricula.

To date, the program has worked in more than 45 countries and produced over 200 open-source management cases, which are available for free on the program’s website.

What’s next for ISS?

ISS’s agenda for the next two years includes several requests from its partner organizations, including, but not limited to the projects below.

  • Project 1: Enhancing performance of mining ministries in G7+ countries. ISS would like to respond to a time-sensitive request to identify better-performing mining ministries, analyze what worked and why, and help facilitate innovation in member states. The focus is on how to streamline and secure business processes to prevent diversion of funds and improve overall capacity.

  • Project 2: Reducing the cost of elections while improving quality. Many low-income countries need to spend heavily on elections, which creates dependence on the international community and puts the system at risk of corruption. This series examines how five countries tried to reduce the cost of elections without sacrificing quality.

  • Project 3: This project expands upon an existing ISS case series on Ebola response by focusing on the steps communities, with weak health systems or high vulnerability to natural disasters or conflict, have taken to improve preparedness.

  • Project 4: Government problems are often similar even when resource levels and contexts vary. This multi-part series, “ISS America” will focus on successes in handling public management challenges in generating non-coal economic growth and improved healthcare and standards of living in Appalachia. The series will also examine improving the capacity of city governments operating in economically depressed areas.

  • Project 5: This series examines the institutional and cultural barriers to the success of conditional cash transfer systems (CCT) in countries outside of Latin America. These programs have been very successful at improving child welfare and keeping children in school in that region, but have not been implemented in many other countries. This series will examine CCT pioneers outside of Latin America and how they have addressed these barriers.

  • Summit Project: ISS plans to host two summits, one in 2018 and one in 2019, to bring together reform leaders and educators from low income countries, provide a forum for shared learning, and expand the program’s online resources for learners in government, civic organizations, and universities around the world.

Fellowship Project: This project would enable a practitioner and a university researcher to join the ISS staff as a quarter-time non-resident associate each year. Each would take charge of a different line of research in an area where they have special expertise or experience. The Fellows will participate in project discussions, publish articles based on the research they develop and supervise, assist with the reformer summit, and/or develop a module for the “Making Government Work in Hard Places” course.

In countries as far-flung as Myanmar, Indonesia, South Africa, and El Salvador, Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS) helps public sector leaders develop new ideas about how to serve citizens better.  Work permits, land titles, water, roads, healthcare—all of these things shape the human experience. But often the difficulty of designing a workable system; adapting, coordinating, monitoring, and motivating, gets in the way. Under the direction of Professor Jennifer Widner, ISS talks to leaders about the challenges they face, scours the globe for success stories, adds analytics, and facilitates a global conversation about how to build better government. The management case studies and research briefs the program produces show how extraordinary people have improved lives under daunting circumstances—and how others can adapt and scale these solutions.


ISS Director Jennifer Widner is Professor of Politics & International Affairs at Princeton University. She has recently completed a book manuscript on ending the 2014 West African Ebola Outbreak.  Her previous published work has focused on a variety of development-related topics. Widner currently serves on the Cameron Commission on State Fragility, Growth and Development.