TOR094 – With Panthea Lee

Panthea Lee

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“By doing the field research ourselves and doing the design we are better implementers, and doing the implementation gives us greater insight into the field realities that inform design.” Panthea Lee is a Principal and lead designer at, a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance. Panthea is focused on the practical applications of ethnography and systems thinking in delivering effective international development and governance programs. Prior to co-founding, Panthea worked with the UNICEF Innovations team where she managed the development of a real-time data platform to support child rights advocacy in Iraq and mobile learning tools in Suriname and Sudan. She also contributed to the launch of Palestine’s first open-source software community. Before joining UNICEF, Panthea worked as a journalist covering access to information, press freedom, and sustainable development. Panthea writes and speaks regularly about her experiences around the world. She has presented at A Better World By Design, Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium, and TEDxDumbo. She has lectured at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the School of Visual Arts, among others. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, MIT Innovations Journal, Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, Core77, TechPresident and Fast Company. You can follow Panthea here:  

In TOR 094 you’ll learn about:

  • Panthea and’s breakthroughs by bringing user-centered design and ethnography principles into a lifecycle perspective of international development
  • The efficiency and user value frustrations that gave origin to
  • About entryism, and bringing a spirit of experimentation and agile testing into the inner workings of NGOs and governments
  • What a development consulting firm gains by being part of the whole development lifecycle

Our conversation includes the following:



  • Entryism
  • User-centered design
  • Ethnography
  • Anthropology
  • Lifecycle consulting
  • Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA)
  • Public finance, financial management systems
  • Mobile voter registration platforms


  • New York
  • Nigeria
  • Libya

Episode Crib Notes

First we talk about
  • How they want to change the way government and development institutions approach policy making and service delivery
  • They are consultants for institutional implementation, throughout the cycle: research, strategy, implementation
  • The use approaches from design, ethnography, political science
  • And they also Integrate citizen voices in local context, as foundation not afterthought
  • They seek access to senior leaders in government and agencies to perform the most effective work
  Then, we talking about Panthea’s origins
  • Like so many of us, “I didn’t know I wanted to work in development”
  • Her previous experience includes UNICEF Innovation and the private sector
  • She is skeptical to the aid and development industry “like many of us”
  • And, she has thought, “Surely there must be a way to do things better”
  Her “ah ha” moment came in Sudan
  • Panthea was in charge of designing a program scale up
  • After a couple years “there was not a lot to show.” Investment in educational software resulted in some animated PowerPoints, but not much else
  • Design became important has a design approach to development
  • Her mentors were not sold on the lifecycle focus, so she’s proving it a
  • They are constantly experimenting… in each contract Panthea tries to draw knowledge from design and anthropology
  • At each point of growth in the company they ask themselves “what is the way that we can have more impact”
  • They also do Pro bono work with smaller NGOs they gather more insight
  What are the levers the focus on for impact and cutting through red tape
  • They’ve found that opportunity cost is more painful for large organizations
  • So, they developed a weighting matrix. Criteria number one is “who is the person at the other side of the table” because, after all, they are going to change the way people live, sometimes radically
  • This questionnaire determines more specific questions on intervention
  • Projects also need leaders who can push further
  • The have found that individuals are the biggest lever – you need champions
  Segue into: Entryism, by Trotsky
  • “Infiltrate sounds like the wrong term”
  • Panthea gets deep into the inner working of an organization offered a fresh perspective
  • The World Bank was among the first clients “mostly because we were cheaper than the other guys”. Highly discounted offering
  • Large investment in communications, storytelling: “People don’t invest in them but we knew that was going to be a significant part of [our] advocacy model”
  • Report exhibits were “to frame on the walls”, according to their clients
  • Senior officials see their work, realize they’d be great for… public finance!
  A learning
  • Public finance is a trending topic
  • The World Bank asks them to develop a methodology for financial management systems evaluation
  • OECD norms have not taken them far
  • Panthea’s team applied an anthropological layer to public economics, to involve both formal and informal factors (social networks)
  • “We were not interested only into what is broken and needs to be fixed. We wanted to understand how the whole system works”
  • It led the stakeholders learn a lot about corruption
  • Government officials live in unnecessary constraints, when it comes to understanding and skills
  • It led to better dialogues, ongoing reforms in infrastructure spending and procurement policy
  Her thoughts on inclusiveness and transfer
  • “We’ve been trying to capture and document our approaches”
  • Lots of manuals, guides developed
  • People love the words user-centered design, but don’t realize the work it implies, the least of which is not adapting processes from private sector to development
  • Translating consumers into people for public sector work
  • Panthea feels good for being part of a conversation about design and user focus on development
  How does operate, day to day?
  • Panthea oversees project. Zach, her founding partner is CEO, leads the organization, pushes a vision
  • Both of them are also involved in project work
  • Project work is Panthea’s most exciting duty. She loves interviews, discovery. “I don’t get to do that a lot anymore”
  • Nowadays is lots of emails, conferences, keep the machine running
  What was her biggest #fail and how did she recover?
  • A lot at the beginning
  • “Some of the biggest mistakes have come from being too eager at the outset. Everything seems too good on paper”
  • Also a mistake: talking people out of trying what they’re excited about
  • That one time in Libya. The government invites them, UN supports. A mobile voter registration platform project. Lot of turmoil, geographical barriers, political isolation. Challenging at all levels. Success as far as the project is concerned, with novel outcomes at the global level. However, they were not able to execute solutions in a “robust” manner, regarding proper citizen use. Beyond differences of opinion, problems of inclusiveness and ego. “Perhaps we were waiting a scale of change that was not feasible”
  What is she excited about for the next five years?
  • recent relaunch
  • New partners. Janet Haven, Open Society Foundations. She suggested to lead through their advocacy.
  • Interventions that consider political complexity
  • Let organizations involved test and refine processes
  • The role of external evaluators, to be more involved, and more system based
  Are there any special tools, processes, systems Reboot uses to be more awesome?
  • “Not a lot”
  • PDIA — Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation, by Pritchett and Andrews (a paper).
  • Lot of ethnographic research. Currently learning about institutional ethnography

Please share, participate and leave feedback below!

If you have any feedback you’d like to share for me or Panthea, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below! I read all of them and will definitely take part in the conversation. If you have any questions you’d like to ask me directly, head on over to the Ask Stephen section. Don’t be shy! Every question is important and I answer every single one. And, if you truly enjoyed this episode and want to make sure others know about it, please share it now:
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