Update on the Pacific Update

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on June 30th, 2017.

Last week I joined a whole bunch of people at the USP campus in Suva for the annual ‘Pacific Update’.

It is a conference that is convened by USP, the Asian Development Bank and the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University (full disclosure: I am a Visiting Fellow to the Development Policy Centre but have no role in organising the Pacific Update).

Up until a few years ago it was held in Canberra but for the last few times it has been held in Suva. 

This makes it a much better conference for a number of reasons. One of the main ones is that no-one from the Pacific wants to go to Canberra in June. But, more importantly, it means that the content is much more home grown in nature, with presentations from academics, policy makers, people working in regional organisations, and members of civil society.

Another big improvement to the Pacific Update is that it has become much more focused on policy (development and implementation) in recent years.

This gives it a much wider appeal than previously when its focus was on updates about Pacific island economies.

So, for this year the conference used 3 themes to guide the selection of papers and the composition of panels.

They were: enhancing connectivity (e.g. regional cooperation, trade, infrastructure and ICT), blue-green economy (including but not limited to climate change and disaster resilience), and labour mobility, job creation, and labour market developments.

Vanuatu was very well represented at the conference last week. Anna Naupa presented with her colleague Devika Raj of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat on work that is ongoing looking at how regional financing can be made more effective.

Linda Kenni was part of a group that shared the findings of research they are doing about localisation of disaster response in the Pacific.

Fremden Yanhambath responded to the call for papers and presented on the work done by TVET to reform the way skills based training is delivered in Vanuatu. A conference like this provides a great opportunity for people to come together and share ideas.

It creates a space where people who work in government can find out more about what academics are researching and how that might be useful to them. Private sector participants have an opportunity to put forward their concerns and interests to add to the knowledge and understanding of policy makers.

There are a couple of things that would improve this conference for the future.

The first is that now it has got out of Canberra it needs to not get stuck in Suva. Before the Pacific Update came along, ANU would convene country updates in the relevant countries, i.e. the Vanuatu Update was held in Vanuatu.

Both USP and the ADB have vested interests in increasing their visibility in Pacific island countries other than Fiji.

Making the Pacific Update more mobile is a great way of doing this.

I would recommend that the Pacific Update is convened in Suva every second year and that it should be held in a different country in the alternate years.

This will allow for a wider range of people to take part and ensure that the content does not become overly dominated by Fiji concerns.

It will also build a wider awareness of the Pacific Update in several countries.

This will hopefully lead to more people responding to the call for papers each year or following the conference via live stream if they are not able to attend in person.

The conference organisers continue to do a good job in ensuring that we hear from a wide range of presenters and that there is a good mix of academic and practice-based material.

And there is more that can be done to ensure that this diversity is increased each year.

The annual call for papers is a key tool for letting people know about the conference and inviting them to take part. This needs to be circulated more widely and more often.

There needs to be a particular focus on getting the call for papers into local media (including social media) in Pacific island countries.

There is also scope for providing pre-conference support for people who may have little or no experience

in presenting at conferences but who are keen to give it a go.

This could be a website that collects together good resources about how to prepare a presentation and a chat forum where people can ask questions about what to expect.

Conferences are not the only way of facilitating discussions about important policy concerns and they may not be the best.

But the Pacific Update is good at what it does and deserves continuing and increased support.


Let’s make Vanuatu the land of ‘getting stuff done’

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.


Mining our collective resources – are citizen juries the way to go?

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on June 2nd, 2017.

I hadn’t heard of citizen juries until quite recently, when they were discussed in a podcast I listen to (The Minefield on Radio National/Radio Australia).

The name ‘citizen jury’ is a bit confusing because they are not about court cases or dispute resolution as you might think. They are probably better described as ‘citizen panels’. And they are a mechanism where citizens of a country, or a province or a town, come together to decide on how to address a particular policy issue. It could be something discrete, like whether to build a road or a bridge. Or it might be something bigger like childhood obesity or youth unemployment.

The mechanism works by bringing together an informed group of citizens, selected to represent the overall population of the affected area. The panel isn’t intended to be an alternative decision-making body. Its purpose is to provide recommendations that will influence the relevant decision-makers.

The process includes having access to expertise and knowledge to inform the panel’s deliberations. This might include data provided by the national statistics office, or a presentation by a civil engineer, or an explanation of a relevant government policy by a departmental official.

There are certainly aspects of this approach that would appear to fit very well with the Pacific context. Collective discussions to guide decision-making are a feature of many Pacific societies. And there is reason to think that this sort of activity is one that people would appreciate. During the development of Vanuatu 2030 (the National Sustainable Development Plan), there were community consultations in each province, which were well supported by all accounts. In 2012, the ‘MP Face to Face’ programme that was facilitated by the Pacific Institute for Public Policy was very well received.

These panels are used in parts of the USA and also in Australia, particularly in the state of Victoria. So there are quite a few resources available to see how other countries have made use of them.

There are some key factors that I think are important to think about when developing something like this for a country such as Vanuatu.

The first is that what is expected to result from the panel’s deliberations is a set of recommendations. This means that we would expect more than just a discussion about what people think or their complaints about something or some vague statement like ‘government should do…’

On the other hand, the panel does not have any decision-making function and we need to manage expectations on all sides to ensure that this is clear from the outset. The role of the panel is to influence decision-makers, not replace them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of how a mechanism like this might work is that the panel needs to be representative. Panels need to include members who can represent the viewpoint of all the groups that are affected by the issue under discussion. This means that there may be people in the room who have views or concerns that differ a lot from those of others.

This presents both an opportunity and a risk. The opportunity is that a wider range of knowledge and experience is available to help the panel deliberate. Perhaps more importantly, a process that includes hearing from those with whom we disagree helps make it clear that there will always be trade-offs in decision-making. The risk is that discussions become conflicts and people withdraw from the process because they find it uncomfortable or unproductive.

Elsewhere, panels of this type make use of an expert facilitator to guide the process. This allows for everyone to contribute in ways that are meaningful for them and helpful for the panel as a whole. The facilitator can also ensure that all the members of the panel are able to participate fully, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, or sexual orientation.

This is important to ensure people from groups that might otherwise be left out can take part in these processes.

One of the main concerns about citizen juries that I have is the cost involved. If they are to be used effectively, there will need to be some investment of resources, including time. In the context of how they are used in Victoria, Australia the issue of whether these panels provide value for money has been discussed.

In addition to the direct benefits associated with receiving well-informed proposals to guide decision-making, there are other less tangible positives. For example, using a process of this type can create goodwill in the wider community. It also allows for governments and other decision-making bodies to have access to resources, knowledge and expertise that they might not otherwise be able to draw on.

Photo credit: flickr/peter B9


April 2016

This month saw the launch of my new website (this is it!) and thank you to all who have provided feedback and support.

It’s been great to work with my friends at the Pacific Leadership Program. We are developing some really interesting and important knowledge projects that will help them to communicate and share their research into supporting women into positions of political leadership in Vanuatu. This builds on a literature review I prepared a couple of years ago for the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Program, which you can read here.

Looking to the development of Pacific policy responses, I collaborated with Dr Anna Powles and Mr Jose Sousa-Santos to prepare a submission to the Specialist Subcommittee on Regionalism under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Ours was one of more than 40 that were received. Our submission is entitled ‘Pacific Disaster Response & Coordination Unit’ and you can read it here.

On Coffee & Controversy during April, we have discussed the opportunities and challenges associated with introducing income tax into Vanuatu and foreign policy.

I contributed to coverage by Pacific Beat of the growing tensions within the Melanesian Spearhead Group over the appointment of a new Director General to the secretariat, funding problems and controversy as to membership relating to the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua (UMLWP) and Indonesia.

I provided some background material to Daniel Flitton of The Age for this item about ongoing concerns about the quality of governance on Nauru, with particular focus on the decision of Westpac bank to close its accounts with the government of that country.

It was great to catch up with Dr Colin Tukuitonga, the Director General of the Pacific Community whilst he was here in Vanuatu. We talked about a number of things which was a great opportunity to revisit some of the things we discussed in this interview for Pacific Conversations, back in 2014.

I enjoyed taking part in a webinar that focused on the use of social media in disaster response and management. It reinforced for me some of the issues I identified in this item I wrote further to the passage of Cyclone Pam during March last year.

Please have a look around the website to find out more about TNC Pacific Consulting and how my expertise can be of use to you.