This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post, June 9th 2017
During the week, I was chatting with someone who had recently been working in Papua New Guinea. She was telling me how some provincial government officials laughed in agreement when they heard PNG referred to as the ‘land of planning and policy’.
It is certainly something I notice about PNG. There are (it seems) weekly announcements of policies, roadmaps and frameworks being launched. All of them require workshops, stakeholder consultations, drafts and revisions.
There is no denying that devoting time, energy and (most importantly) thought to big questions is an important and useful exercise. Questions like, ‘what do we need to grow our economy’, or ‘what skills will our workforce need in the next 20 years?’ Well constructed, evidence based policy can provide very useful guidance to how public money is spent and resources deployed to improve the way things are done in our country.
But a policy document is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. I recently reviewed a document in which someone had written ‘this framework achieved…’ My response (after banging my head against a wall) was ‘frameworks do not achieve things, people do’.
And there in a nutshell is my concern with an over emphasis on policies, frameworks, roadmaps and so on. It is too easy to think that developing these things is a primary activity. Rather than a precursor to actually getting stuff done.
Getting stuff done is, of course, not as easy as it sounds. But it is in the extent to which stuff does or does not get done that the rubber really hits the road when it comes to policy. If the investment in developing policies does not deliver an appropriate return in stuff getting done then it becomes increasingly hard to justify it.
I think there are a few tricks to getting that return on investment. And we have lots of opportunities in Vanuatu to make use of them (and others) to cultivate a culture of ‘getting stuff done’.
The first is about linkages. Policy documents need to be linked vertically and horizontally. During the recent launch of new policies by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), the Commissioner of Labour commented that these policies need to be linked to the National Sustainable Development Plan. Quite so. The ‘People’s Plan’ is or should be the foundation document for all policies in Vanuatu, whether developed at ministerial or sectoral level.
Policies such as those launched recently by MOET also need to be linked to a national human resources development strategy. This is something we do not yet have in its fullest form. It needs to be future focused and include an analysis of the skills we will need in the private sector as well as in government. It needs to be linked to how technological and financing changes will affect our economy and our country as a whole.
Another important aspect of getting a return on investment when it comes to policy development is translation. A workshop to ‘socialise’ (which is development speak for show and tell) a policy document is nothing like enough. Those who are going to implement the policy (i.e. get stuff done) need to be able to translate it into recognisable tasks and activities. Are they going to have to change certain procedures, or collect different data or work with different agencies? Or are they going to carry on doing things the same way as before?
It would be silly to think that the impact of a new policy document would or even should be evident overnight. It takes time for the impact of these things to become apparent. But eventually, someone needs to ask the ‘so what’ question. I ask this question a lot, and it often makes me quite unpopular. So what if you have a policy or a framework or a roadmap? More importantly: how has that improved your ministry’s ability to deliver services to the population; how has it made your operations more efficient; how has it contributed to improvements in people’s everyday lives?
Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is a place for developing policy and it is an important step, whether at national, provincial, ministerial or departmental level. But spending time and energy developing policies gets you to the starting line. It’s getting stuff done that runs the race.