Scaling Up Does Not Mean Doing the Same Thing at Scale
By Sandra Naranjo Bautista

Almost everyone recognizes that scaling up is hard. There is an implicit acknowledgment of the challenges that organizations, including governments, face when they attempt to take successful pilots to scale; however, the translation of that understanding into concrete action to overcome this problem is more vague. Perhaps the real problem is truly embracing the implications of what “scaling-up” implies; not just in terms of resources, but also in terms of strategy and systems. I would like to share three of the lessons I have learned in over a decade working in and researching topics about the public sector.

1. Multiply vs Modify

One of the simplest ways I have found to highlight the difficulties of scaling up is with a sweet analogy, baking a cake. After all, who doesn’t love cake? Imagine you are preparing a chocolate cake. You follow the recipe, make some variations of your own and it turns out to be delicious. Now you are asked to bake a cake three times bigger. To simply triple the ingredients for the dough is not enough; you also need to triple the strength used to mix those ingredients. At that point, perhaps your hand mixer might not be enough. Now imagine your cake got so famous that you were asked by your local store to bake a hundred of them. As you can imagine, now it is not only about increasing the amount of ingredients, but actually upgrading your capacity to produce cakes. A new mixer, oven, a team of people and even a new kitchen might be required. 

This simple example shows that sometimes multiplying, like in the case of the three cakes, is enough. There are governmental programs in which multiplying successful pilots work out well. In the public sector that often occurs with complicated problems, like building roads. There are other occasions in which you need to modify your program to be able to scale, like in our analogy with the hundred cakes. Malnutrition programs are a classical example where successful pilots cannot simply be “scaled-up”. Stunting is a complex problem that requires a strong behavioral intervention and community engagement to succeed. While it is possible to deliver an intervention with a very high level of human contact and interaction in pilots, to scale it becomes virtually impossible. For a program in child malnutrition to be successful it will require a modification in the design of the intervention, not simply multiplying the resources to produce more of the same. Usually this will involve setting up systems: human, technological, logistical, among others, that could sustain the intervention at scale. The art of policy design is then to be able to identify when to modify and when to multiply. These two concepts are often not differentiated.

 2. Scaling up is not always possible or desirable 

When a program is working well, or there has been a successful pilot, there is always the temptation to want to go to scale. If a program has been working, why not? The problem is that scaling up is not always possible or desirable. Having a successful program is necessary but not sufficient to go to scale.

Think of a building made with LEGOs. It looks beautiful as a miniature, but that doesn’t mean we could scale-up that model and build one real size. It will need a different kind of material, scaffolding and internal structure to withstanding real-world conditions. In this case, scaling up is not possible. Now, imagine you overcome these obstacles and it is possible to build it to real size, will it be practical? Probably not. It will not only be inefficient and costly, but very likely you would prefer not to live in a LEGO building. In this example - a bit exaggerated to illustrate the concept - scaling up wouldn’t be desirable. 

For programs to be able to be implemented they need to simultaneously meet three key criteria, which is known as the strategic triangle. This framework, developed at Harvard University, refers to the need for programs to be simultaneously:

  • Technically correct: when the theory of change from inputs to outputs and outcomes is adequate and has proven to work.  
  • Administratively feasible: having the financial, human and logistical resources and systems required to execute, monitor and evaluate a program successfully.
  • Politically supportable: having the required backing from the authorizers and relevant stakeholders to implement a program.

Having a successful pilot or a program does not guarantee that these conditions will be met at scale. Frequently, there is the implicit assumption that because it worked before, it will work now. Often the analysis of the particular circumstances to scale up, as well as the analysis of whether it will require modification or multiplication of resources, is rushed or omitted.

 3. Keep your eyes on the target

It might sound counter-intuitive, but losing sight of the objective is more common than you might think. The day to day activities, along with the pressing need to show that you are doing something, make it easy to confuse the goal of scaling up the project, rather than actually achieving the real results. It is always easier to mention how many children are attending antenatal check-ups and receiving nutrition supplements, or how much money the government is spending on the program, rather than measuring the impact of the program on the number of children who are malnourished.

If there is a successful pilot program to train primary school teachers but scaling up is not working, one of two things is likely to happen. The first is to analyze what is going wrong with the scaling up of the program and try to fix the problem(s) to make the program work. If the program is still not working, even after you’ve tried multiple improvements, then perhaps there is no configuration of the pilot design that will work at scale. Instead, you may need to consider how systems can be introduced to facilitate the intervention at scale.  The second, less obvious, alternative, particularly if you have already invested money, time and political capital in a project, is to stop trying to scale up the program and consider an alternative, or even reconsider whether that particular program is suitable to scale up.  At the end of the day, your objective is not simply to make a small program large, but to train the primary school teachers. What economists call a sunk cost can bias policy making and induce us to make costly mistakes. 

 That is why I like to refer to policy implementation as an art more than a science. There is no magic formula to fix all the problems, it is about finding the right mix of tools for a policy intervention that would work for the particular context and circumstances that you are in.

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