Bridging the Gap Between Policy and Action
As we navigate the aftermath of COVID-19, and the degree of complexity and interconnectedness of development challenges becomes more apparent, governments in Africa face the challenge of equipping themselves for higher levels of uncertainty and the need to embrace greater agility. Many of them have displayed remarkable dynamic capabilities in handling the pandemic. The big question ahead is how they can harness this newly found agility for renewing their relationship with citizens.
In Botswana, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD) embarked on an ambitious “Transformation Agenda”, which they developed in collaboration with UNDP Botswana in the context of a decentralization policy that was approved last year. Digitisation, inclusive and shock-responsive social protection services, and resilient local economies are all part of the agenda, whose spirit is well captured by the tagline of Closer, Faster, Better. Importantly, the Ministry is focusing on transformational, not incremental change. But how will the vision be translated into action?
The policy-to-implementation gap is a challenge faced by governments all over the world. The pandemic has perhaps made it more acute and visible, resulting in dwindling trust in institutions (see the latest Edelman Trust Barometer). “A desk is a dangerous place from which to see the world,” Le Carre famously warned us. And governments all over the world suffer from the separation between planners and implementers.
MLGRD is well aware of this risk, being closer to the citizens through its extensive service provision at the local level.
Leveraging its relationship with UNDP Botswana, MLGRD recently took a select group of officials through a journey of discovery on how they might embed “agility” in their work. The purpose of the program, which was offered to officials both from the Ministry’s central unit as well as to local and tribal administrators, was to experience what agility in policy implementation could look like. The workshops covered the role of public entrepreneurs within government and encouraged participants to develop concrete prototypes that can show in a very tangible way to citizens how the transformation agenda will benefit them.
“The Strategy is Delivery:” How can MLGRD embrace Agility?
During the program, deep conversations unfolded on how MLGRD might make a shift from traditional, linear planning to a more agile way of delivering services to citizens. Through interactive experiments, participants absorbed how even a perfectly laid out and beautiful plan might not survive its first encounter with reality. Although “experimentation” is often seen as a bad word in the context of public services, if well-executed, a series of experiments in a portfolio logic can actually reduce the risks of policy implementation and prevent government from locking on prematurely to a specific path. The “strategy is delivery,” a motto coined by the UK’s Government Digital Service, became the reigning principle of the day.
We also shared how change is happening in the public sector throughout the world: in places like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, in Togo and Namibia. Not only in Scandinavia!
Overall, the program unpacked the rather abstract concept of transformation, which can come across as overwhelming and dis-empowering in a highly hierarchical structure, by making it more manageable. It became apparent that testing assumptions quickly is a way to shorten the policy-to-implementation gap, reduce risks, and possibly save costs.
Start with Citizens
Having ideas is not enough for the transformation agenda to materialise. Implementation cannot end in government boardrooms, offices, and desks but needs to happen out in the field in close contact with citizens, tapping into their expertise and intimate knowledge of the issues. Civil servants are encouraged to go to where the work is in the field: spend a few hours watching the rudimentary, time-consuming and sometimes income-wasting processes on display in local health centers, schools, the transportation sector, waste collection, and others. Understanding the true needs of people who rely on public services cannot be achieved from behind a desk or conference table: we need to immerse ourselves in their environment and walk in their shoes.
We also acknowledged that local challenges are better solved by local solutions and with grassroot communities who are closer to the problem. Local community actors often develop low-cost interventions using local ingenuity, and these sometimes go unnoticed. The participants also noted that they could explore tapping into “local artisans” to complete certain tasks at the local councils which shortens the traditional procurement process. It is often faster and cheaper! This also increases productivity and income among indigenous people. Artisan projects also foster grassroots development while simultaneously serving economic and social goals.
As one of the participants noted: “I have learnt that to create change I need to move out of the boardroom, listen to and empathize with citizens.”
The Policy Entrepreneur in a Rigid System
To close the implementation gap, it is not enough to experiment and tap into the resource of citizens. Bureaucracies are complex organisms with conflicting agendas and a culture that is often risk averse. For this reason, we collectively reflected on the role of a “policy entrepreneur” to make things happen in spite of many obstacles. Here again, our purpose was to make the transformation agenda very personal and tangible, and to reflect on the very specific capabilities that are required to make things happen in social systems.
We drew from the RSA’s excellent report which noted that “The future public servant will increasingly need to think and act like an ‘entrepreneur,’ developing testable ideas, building new relationships, rallying resources, working across sector lines and acting and sometimes losing and failing.”
A particularly revealing exercise was asking participants about the characteristics of public entrepreneurs by whom they felt inspired during their careers; what made them effective, and what allowed them to bring about change in spite of many constraints. A distinctive energy filled the room when stories of change and of the people who initiated them were shared. And while initially the traits that were identified conformed more to the idea of the “lonely hero” (bold, risk taking, etc), participants were quick to reflect that effective public entrepreneurs are nurturing, resilient, create space for others to grow, and are very effective at providing feedback.
A particular skill we dwelt on is “finding the cracks”: far from “breaking things,” effective public entrepreneurs often know the rules better than anybody else so that they can find room for agility where others are frustrated by seemingly impossible regulations and restrictions.
Ultimately, we underscored that the spirit of public entrepreneurship needs be reinforced by a conducive organizational culture that acknowledges the need to be agile, that catalyses collaboration, execution and risk taking, and recognizes innovation to achieve tangible results on the ground. Participants engaged in a visual card activity to identify the “ideal” culture that they would like build to foster agility and entrepreneurship at the Ministry.
Shifting from words and spreadsheets to visuals allowed the attendees to explore a different dimension of the transformation agenda: away from rigid “milestones” and “objectives” and towards a more fluid, personal and emotional understanding of the “north star.” This was also a way for them to reflect on how they might communicate the need for change to their own staff.
Building Prototypes and the Multiplier Effect
All the activities and discussions culminated in the development of concrete prototype proposals that can be implemented in the next 10 days to put into practice the knowledge and skills gained from the practical exercises and turn the transformation agenda into reality.
The participants had the opportunity to transition from the big transformation plans to concretely conceptualize small scale projects that they can quickly test and learn from as they implement. Some of the ideas that emerged included innovative ways to collect unclaimed compensatory fines, a ward-based transfer station, landscaping of the city with artisans, incentivizing waste collection, fixing electrical faults, digitalization of records, anti child-abuse initiatives, involvement of local artisans to improve procurement, and a client-driven database of local challenges to be solved.
The UNDP Botswana Country office also reached out to the Botswana Digital and Innovation Hub who hosted the event as a strategic partner to nurture these promising ideas. This collaboration will potentially allow scale-up of this thinking to other teams and to other ministries in the public sector.
If any government, especially in developing countries, is going to succeed in a rapidly changing world, its officials need to be empowered to take risks with precision and consistency, test and launch experiments in pursuit of delivering more relevant, efficient and effective solutions that will ultimately benefit the country’s development at large.