Why Policies Don’t Work In Nigeria

I had a conversation with a friend today and he pointed out how quickly policy impacts the daily lives of the American people once the president or state government enacts the policy, using Trumps recent rash of executive order signings as an example. Then he contrasted this with how in Nigeria, government makes policy after policy on the same thing, with lofty expectations and pronouncements on how the policy will change the lives of Nigerians, but months and years after “implementing” such policies, the reality of Nigerians’ lives is different from the official policy.

This got me thinking. Why does the Oga At The Top of the Federal Road Safety Commission for example repeatedly announce that Drivers’ Licenses are meant to cost 6,500Naira whereas in reality Nigerians continue to pay anything from 12,000Naira to 30,000Naira depending on how fast they want the license to “come out”. Or where the CBN announces FX policies but to the average Nigerian, the policy could as well be Ghana or Lesotho’s policy because it has no bearing on the reality of how they get dollars?

There are many reasons — bad policies, policies not grounded in sound economics, corruption and so on. But as I pondered, I came to a conclusion. All the above are important, but I found that there are some policies the government releases that have an almost instant impact. So it means if the policy is crafted right, with the right incentives to cause most Nigerians to comply leaving enforcement to deal with a relatively small number who don’t comply, policies in Nigeria can be like the policies in America. So why do the majority not work?

Here’s what I think — in Game Theory, there is a concept called the Socially Optimal Solution. This is the solution that is arrived at when we assume that people will by themselves chose the behavior that will result in them and everyone else getting the best share of resources or whatever else they are competing for. So it assumes for example that because we all know that the roads will be freer for all if everyone stays in lane, everyone will by themselves stay in lane. If you live in Lagos or Port Harcourt, I’m certain you just rolled your eyes. People simply do not behave in this manner in real life. They rather try to get ahead and take advantage of any “chances” they get to outsmart everyone else. You can check out the basics of the concept HERE

So, policies are made with the above in mind, with explicit incentives if you comply and then proper consequences for the few exceptions that do not adhere to the policies. In such cases, the impact of the policy cascades down quickly.

As much as possible, systems are put in place to make it nearly impossible to not adhere. The Japanese call this concept Poka Yoke — mistake proofing, with the belief that the best way to prevent mistakes is not to rely on the goodwill of the people, but to design the system so that it is very hard for anyone to make a mistake. So we see the building blocks of good policy making and implementation here

· Don’t assume people will behave in a socially optimal manner

· Craft with as much Poka Yoking as possible so complying is easier and cheaper than non-compliance

· Most people will comply because it is economically better

· Some people are slightly mad so they won’t comply

· Not to worry, because they are few, your enforcement systems and people will be able to easily identify them

· There are commensurate consequences for non-compliance

Here’s what I’ve found — in Nigeria, when the government is serious about a policy (cue, when it affects their interests, or the interests of the politically connected or powerful) they craft and implement the policy within the frame that people will not be socially optimal and Poka Yoke as much as possible and then make it extremely hard to change such policies. A good example is the Exclusive Legislative List.

But where it is one of those things that do not affect those vested interests, they craft and implement policy in a lazy manner, with buzz words like patriotism and Nigerian values being this or that way, and leave it to the people to chose the socially optimal solution. Of course this doesn’t happen. And because the people know and the government knows this, everyone carries on without consequences. Until some newbie announces the same policy again and promises to “bring all flouters to book”. I’m sure everyone can come up with tons of examples. So, there you have it.