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That Within Which Passeth Show (on Isomorphic Mimicry)

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Ay, madam, it is common.

If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Hamlet – Act 1 Scene 2

That was Shakespeare; here’s Lant Pritchett:

Isomorphic mimicry is the tendency of governments to mimic other governments’ successes, replicating processes, systems, and even products of the “best practice” examples. This mimicry often conflates form and function: leading to a situation where “looks like” substitutes for “does”; i.e., governments look capable after the mimicry but are not actually more capable. We argue that this is endemic in development and has become a primary reason why countries do not build real capability even after years of policy and reform engagement and billions of dollars of capacity building work.

Form Without Substance

Here are a few examples of isomorphic mimicry in practice – feel free to add your own.

  • School buildings with teachers, children and bureaucracy but no actual learning
  • Doctors who consult and write prescriptions but don’t actually practice medicine
  • Organisations with charts-of-accounts and annual reports but no effective operational financial procedures or controls
  • Organisations with effective operational financial procedures and controls but little or no actual impact
  • Qualifications without skills
  • Timetables that never reflect reality
  • Meetings where nothing happens
  • Offices where people sit at desks but don’t do anything
  • Laws and legal systems that sell verdicts to the highest bidder (“laws without the rule of law”)
  • Constitutions and the appearance of democracy with no actual change of government
  • Tactile paving that leads off tall curbs, or into open drains
  • Shelves of books that have never been read
  • Escalators installed without maintenance plans or budgets
  • Vapid social media statistics
  • “Teams” that don’t serve each other or their customers
  • Whitewashed tombs

Partial Solutions

Some questions to ask first:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Who is it for?
  • What is it supposed to achieve?
  • What is the most effective, lowest overhead way of achieving this goal?
  • Who will use this thing most often?
  • What inputs are needed? What outputs?
  • What are the important edge-cases (unusual uses that might break the system)?
  • How will it be maintained?
  • What is the tao of the system and how can we use this in our favour, or counterbalance it?
  • How can we manage it (i.e. ensure it achieves its purpose) with as little overhead as possible?
  • How will we know if it’s working?
  • Who will be responsible for working against friction of all kinds to make sure this thing works?
  • Does the relevant person have the resources (time, money, skills) and authority to do their job?
  • What examples of isomorphic mimicry (“effectiveness theatre”) do we tend to slip into, and how can we ruthlessly eliminate them?

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...