By Obadiah Mailafia
I HAVE been one of those who congratulated the current administration during the recent launching of new Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, by President Muhammadu Buhari and his Economic Team.
One of the novelties in this plan relates to its avowed commitment to rigorous policy implementation. What is making many observers sceptical, however, is the fact that it is a commitment that remains shrouded in ambiguity, if not obfuscation. What we have been told is that a new unit will be put in place in the Presidency and will be charged with the task of monitoring implementation to ensure the administration meets up with all its multifarious policy targets.
Given that this administration has a penchant for moving with the speed of an oil tanker, those of us who wish them well remain anxious as to whether such an outfit will emerge and will be able to hit the ground running, to borrow the language of US marines.
As far as I am concerned, the Achilles’ heel of our national development efforts going back decades relates very much to the question of implementation. We have not been short of good plans. On the contrary, we have had a surfeit of them. The NEEDS framework, Vision 20-2020, the CBN’s FSS2020, the Transformation Agenda and several others, were unassailable on technical grounds. There was also broad enough consensus on those plans. But the devil has been in the details of implementation. Up till now, sadly, we have not developed a rigorous framework for policy implementation for Nigeria. As a consequence, many of our budgets are never completed as at and when due. The ‘abandoned project’ syndrome is a typically Nigerian disease. According to UNIDO, some 60% of our national projects never reach the completion stage.
In the policy sciences, the new paradigm of delivery is gaining increasing popularity. It is part of the legacy of the Tony Blair administration in Britain. Like many executive leaders, Blair was not wholly satisfied with his government’s performance during the first mandate of his administration during the years 1997—2001. When he won a second mandate he decided he would do things differently. He invited a top policy expert, Michael Barber, to help him set up a Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, PMDU, in the very heart of his government.
The whole initiative, as to be expected, was greeted with a lot of scepticism, if not outright hostility, by Whitehall mandarins. But the Prime Minister gave his full political backing to the project. The Director of PMDU had a simple and straightforward mandate: to ensure that the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers on its campaign promises. In the words of the pioneer director of the PMDU: “What I discovered with others in the Blair administration was that you could put in place some basic approaches that, if you followed them through, would make it much more likely that you’d deliver what you’d promised than otherwise.”
The PMDU was staffed by a Director and a small but very robust team of analysts, most of them from outside the normal administration. Their role was to develop a metrics for the government’s strategic priorities and monitor these across all ministries, departments and agencies of government, MDAs.
The aim was not to act as watchdogs breathing down the throats of ministers and senior members of the cabinet but to be solution providers who monitor all programmes, identify obstacles and assist senior government officials achieve their goals. The beauty of it is that they will claim the credit, not the PMDU. On its part, the PMDU would send regular monthly briefings to the Prime Minister and the kitchen cabinet as to how progress is being made on the government’s top priority programmes and projects. Whenever a sector was slacking, the alarm bells would ring and emergency solutions will be proffered on how to move the programmes forward.
And let’s not mince words about it, asses could be kicked. It is not for nothing that the African sages used to counsel the king to talk softly and carry a big stick! The approach of the new paradigm is to remove monitoring and programme implementation from the spasmodic approach to one based on regularity and routinisation. The idea is to ensure that the alternative to spasm is the installation of routine.
Thus, a new government coming into power, with a shortage of technical and political skills, should be asking a number of pertinent questions: “One is: What are the priorities?” The second would be, “If you succeeded in delivering a given priority, how would you know? What would success look like in 2019, at the end of this mandate?” and the third question would be, “How would you know at any given moment you’re making progress toward your goals?”
Addressing these questions will lead a delivery-oriented government to develop a set of measurable indicators backed by the requisite data. Most would have to be publicly available and thus, if government is heading in the wrong direction, would have to feel acutely uncomfortable with the inevitable negative public attention. For example, how many kilometres of roads have been paved to date, how many clinics and maternity centres were constructed, how many new schools and how many new rail tracks were laid, and how do these measure against the overall targets set in the government’s priority programmes?
It was my singular honour to have met Tony and Cherie Blair at the home of a mutual friend in Abuja not too long ago. Over a sumptuous dinner we had occasion to discuss his ideas about policy and statecraft. I always believed that his playing the poodle to George W. Bush and his neo-con brethren over Iraq was an act of consummate folly, but I thought it was not the occasion to raise the matter.
To get ourselves out of the current morass, creating a small Strategy and Delivery Unit in the Presidency will be a great help in restoring morale and helping this administration regain confidence of the people. It will also help the President and the Economic Team to keep tabs on progress on all fronts.
The proposed Unit should be in the Presidency for a number of reasons: first, it is important that they are not seen as part of the regular administration or political set-up. Second, being in the Presidency will give them the authority to approach all MDAs without fear or trepidation; and third, being independent technical experts, they cannot be accused of being self-interested actors or prisoners of vested interests within or outside government. If this task were given to the Planning Commission or any other MDA, it would create conflict with other ministers, as they would insist that they are authorities on their own right. In the last administration, the Minister of Finance who also doubled as Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy drew a lot ire that caused much disquiet within the entire cabinet. Such problems should be avoided.
Implementing a new delivery programme will not be easy. There are vested interests that will always be opposed to a new order of things. Implementing effective delivery in the way depicted here presumes a government that is indeed committed to achieving results and is also responsive to the electorate and mindful of its mandate and promises to the people. It also requires the existence of a servant state that serves the people rather than the caprices of rent-seeking public officials. It will require no less than a transformed public administration that is efficient and professional; deploying the arsenals of e-governance, technology and big data to leverage efficiencies, reduce waste and drive implementation to meet measurable targets.