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.


River deep, mountain high

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 26th, 2017

Over the last little while, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people in which the issue of geography has played a key part. In particular, how the physical geography of Pacific island countries affects development.

When we think about the ‘context’ of development in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries, we often talk about politics, cultural structures, economic challenges, gaps in capacity and so on. But often the context of the physical terrain in which people are trying to work is overlooked. Until it becomes apparent that it can no longer be disregarded. Because it is there, in all its glory, getting in the way of what we are trying to do.

When I hear stories of how people had to walk for 20 minutes up a mountain to take books to a school or how their project was delayed because a road was washed out and they couldn’t get building supplies to a site I usually respond by saying ‘Good’.

Not that I wish physical hardship, delay and general frustration on people generally. My reasoning for thinking it is good to hear this type of report goes like this:

We often hear (especially from ‘donors’ of all types) that the reason development is slow or non-existent in rural areas is because of corrupt governments, lazy public servants, a lack of capacity, or a combination of all three. But the geographical realities of Vanuatu and many other countries in the Pacific island region mean that even if we had a perfect government and a public service filled with well-qualified and committed people, it would still be hard. Really hard.

Don’t get me wrong, getting rid of corruption and making government systems more efficient and effective will almost certainly makes things easIER. But it won’t make them easy.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the geography, physical terrain and all that goes with it has. It affects the extent to which government can deliver services. It is a key factor in whether businesses can start and grow. It has a big impact on how communities access essential services. It affects planning, costs (hugely), staffing, and so much more.

For people who have never lived or spent much time in rural and remote areas, it can come as a shock just how much of an impact things like rivers, mountains, coastlines and volcanoes can have on getting things done. And that is before you add in the effects of weather. General weather brings its own set of circumstances to deal with and then there are the extra impacts specific events like cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will have.

There are some indications that technological innovation can assist in overcoming some of the challenges. Vanuatu’s ‘Universal Access Policy’ envisages more than 90% of the population having access to broadband internet by the beginning of next year. Access to internet provides new opportunities in terms of how education, health and other services are delivered in hard to reach areas.

I’ve been at the airport in February and seen the boxes of books the Ministry of Education is trying to get to schools all over the country. It is a time-consuming and very expensive exercise. If resources can be delivered virtually using the internet that could be a real breakthrough.

There are also opportunities for government and donors to partner with private sector operators to overcome challenges of remoteness and difficult terrain.

One of the most important areas of partnership could be around knowledge sharing. If I were going to build a school in a remote area of Vanuatu, I would have whoever has built a shop or a resort in the same location as top of the list of people to talk to.

They will have really useful information about how to get materials to where they are needed. They are likely to know what skills are or are not available in the local area. This sort of knowledge, held in the heads of people who have already done this sort of exercise is worth its weight in gold. Or it should be.

The physical nature of our country is what it is. It is a source of many gifts, which we value greatly. It is also a provider of many challenges.


Parliamentary committees – good for policy, good for politics

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 21st, 2017

I belong to a club with a very small number of members. I don’t often meet other members of this club and when I do they often look at me in disbelief.

I belong to a small group of people who get very excited about parliamentary committees.

It’s very easy to believe that what parliamentary committees do is very boring. The work can certainly be very technical. It involves close study of proposed legislation, reports and submissions. And the processes used by parliamentary committees are very formal and legalistic.

But the roles that parliamentary committees play in an active and vibrant democracy are far from boring. They perform three very important functions.

First, parliamentary committees are part of the oversight mechanisms that operate in parliamentary democracies. They are expected to pay close attention to bills put forward by government and raise questions and concerns about what the legislation is intended to achieve, and how. One of the most important and potentially powerful committees is the Public Accounts Committee. Its job is to scrutinise how government through ministries, departments and other agencies spends public money.

Secondly, they are often referred to as the ‘workhorses’ of a parliament. It is at the committee stage that the text of parliamentary bills is revised and refined to ensure that it is correct and ready for debate by the full Parliament.

Thirdly, committees are able to liaise with the wider society about proposed legislation. They can invite submissions from civil society organisations, the private sector and academics about the issues that a parliamentary bill is intended to address.

Or rather, that is what parliamentary committees are supposed to do. In Vanuatu, and in most other countries in our region, this system exists on paper but does not function meaningfully in practice.

There are a number of challenges that Pacific parliaments face in making best use of a committee system.

They include having sufficient resources to support committees in their work, ensuring that committee chairs and members understand their roles and how to perform them, and being able to communicate the work that committees do in ways that add value.

Recently, Vanuatu was one of a number of countries from around the Pacific that took part in a seminar convened by the United Nations Development Program.

The seminar provided an opportunity for committee chairs and clerks of parliaments to share their experiences and learn from each other.

One of the objectives was to identify ways in which Pacific parliaments can make more and better use of the committee system. Dyfan Jones is a parliamentary specialist with UNDP and identified a couple of ideas to explore. One is changing the rules to make them more suitable for parliaments with small memberships:

“Some Pacific Parliament have recognized that having a small number of committees meeting regularly and undertaking their work is preferable to having rules that provide for a long list of committees that rarely meet. A number of Pacific Parliaments have been looking at revising their rules to make them more appropriate for smaller legislatures.”

This, in turn, may make it easier to make sufficient resources available to allow the committees that are most useful to work in ways that support the whole of the legislative process.

Those who champion the work of parliamentary committees often point to why they are good for policy. They have the potential to greatly improve the legislative process. This is something that is much needed in democracies where bills can be passed by parliaments with minimal (if any) debate on the floor of the House.

The methodologies used by committees mean that members of different parties can work together to progress meaningful policy objectives. This is markedly different from the confrontational point scoring that characterises interactions in the parliamentary chamber.

The use of parliamentary committees can also be good for politics. On the government side, committee work means that MPs not in cabinet are still able to contribute to important decision-making. Taking part in committee proceedings, including as chair, is a good training ground for new MPs in preparation for them taking on ministerial responsibilities.

On the opposition side, active involvement in the work of parliamentary committees is part of demonstrating an ability to form an alternative government. In Vanuatu there are often very few differences of policy position between government MPs and their opposition counterparts. In committees they can work together to achieve positive policy outcomes.

In many jurisdictions, there is a convention that a member of the Opposition chairs the Public Accounts Committee. This is in recognition of the importance of that body in providing an oversight of public expenditure. The Public Accounts Committee has the ability to be a very powerful check on the exercise of executive power.

In healthy democracies, governments recognise and support the valuable contribution that parliamentary committees can and do make. They make appropriate budgetary allocations to support the work of these committees. They ensure that committee members receive professional development in how to fulfil these roles. They make good use of reports and recommendations that the committees produce.

In Vanuatu, a renewed and enhanced commitment to the use of committees may lead to better policy processes and a better political environment all round.

Photo credit: UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji


The report card wrap

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 17th, 2017

I was very pleased to receive a copy of the government’s report card this week. It provides a snapshot of what has and has not been achieved with reference to the government’s 100 day plan and the medium-long term plans that were already in place.

As Vanuatu moves into a ‘right to information’ era, an we should all welcome this type of thing. On the ‘supply’ side of political engagement, it gives government an opportunity to tell the wider community what their elected representatives have achieved. On the ‘demand’ side it allows the rest of us to see how political statements are translated into action. It also provides an insight into some of the challenges that government agencies face in doing that.

The report card is a meaty document that captures a lot of information in an easily accessible way. There are a lot of things in it that can and should merit discussions within government and elsewhere. I was disappointed to learn that no one from government was able or willing to join the ‘Coffee and Controversy’ programme on Tuesday to talk about what the report card says.

This was a missed opportunity I feel. Let’s hope that in future, documents such as these come with a meaningful communications strategy. One that goes beyond putting things on a website and sending them to some media outlets.

There are a few things in this document that caught my eye and that I’ll look at here.

First is the impact of imposing a 100 day plan on agencies’ ability to progress pre-existing plans.

Across the whole of government 52.7% of the objectives on the 100-day plan are considered ‘complete’ as compared with 30.7% of the medium-long term objectives.

This could indicate that the pressure to ‘act short’ is getting in the way of implementing plans that were already in place. If that’s the case, the ways in which something like 100-day plan is used may need to be revised.

There is a danger that it can become the only tool in the box. Ministries and agencies already have a number of plans they are working with (corporate plans, business plans, work plans).

Perhaps another approach would be to have a 100-day report – ministries and departments report every 100 days on their progress against the plans they already have.

In relation to medium-long term plans, there are a couple of ministries with no information in this report card. It’s not clear whether that is because they didn’t provide the information or because they don’t have medium-long term plans in place. Let’s hope it’s the former.

Another item that caught my eye is the continuing good work being done by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Management in rolling out the use of Financial Service Bureaux (FSB) in provincial areas.

This activity is one of the best things Vanuatu has achieved in relation to public financial management and not enough people know about what they are and why they are so important.

In a nutshell they are facilities located in provincial centres that allow real time access to the government financial management system. They provide for timely payments of salaries and bills for goods and services.

These facilities have been in place since 2012 and the challenge is that line agencies have not yet given the appropriate authority to provincial officers to be able to make use of them.screenshot-2017-04-06-13-49-41

Again, this is a huge missed opportunity to make use of this service across most if not all of government. It is particularly important for the bigger ministries such as education and health so that their staff and suppliers can be paid in a timely manner.

It would be great to see ‘implement use of FSB’ on the 2018 business plans of those ministries and departments who are not yet on board.

And then I was struck by the number of challenges faced by ministries that indicate some sort of bottleneck occurring within the legislative drafting section of the State Law Office.

The report card does not indicate what the causes of this bottleneck are. It may be that we don’t have enough legislative drafters or the ones that we have require further professional development to be able to deal with the type and amount of work they are required to do.

Or there may be other reasons. Whatever the cause or causes may be this is something that needs to be addressed.

Too often I meet technical advisers who have been brought in from overseas to draft legislation for a particular department or ministry.

They often appear to do so without engaging meaningfully with the State Law Office. Inputs of this type may address a short-term technical need but they do not build institutional strength, which is what we need.

If you haven’t read the report card, I recommend you do so. It contains lots to think about and discuss with your MP next time you run into him.


It’s time to get behind the public service

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 10th, 2017

So, the public service has a new performance management system. Contrary to some opinion, it is not the first one.

There have been others, largely with the same objectives – to improve productivity, to get value for money, to improve service delivery. Whether this one does a better job of achieving these things will depend on the extent to which those who are mandated to do so enforce it.

I hope that this marks a political recognition of the importance of the public service within the state architecture as a whole. I trust it shows that we appreciate the need to support and develop individuals and groups to deliver the best they can with the available resources. In recent times we have seen some politicians keen to make scapegoats of the public service in fairly broad terms. This is something to be resisted, as a well functioning bureaucracy is an essential part of a democratic state.

There will be plenty of focus on how this new performance management system can and must root out the lazy, the neglectful and the corrupt. Indeed it should. Part of my exhortation to ‘get behind’ the public service is to deliver a much-needed kick where needed or required. But it would be simplistic and intellectually dishonest to paint a picture that classified all public servants in this way.

A reboot of this type provides an opportunity to put in place some fundamental approaches that recognise the vital role that the public service plays in our country and see it be a driving force for progress in the future.

The public service is home to some of the best-educated people in the country, who hold a range of technical, administrative and professional qualifications. There is a lot of intellectual firepower available and ready to be put to good use. However, we need to be sure that the resources are in the right place and that the structures work to make sure they get utilised effectively. This is where appropriate recruitment, retention and succession policies and plans come in. For example, decisions about scholarships for further study need to be made on the basis of what a unit, department or ministry will need in the medium to longer term.

Perhaps the most important thing I would like to see come out of this process is a revamp of the Public Service Commission. Given the current leadership of that organisation, it appears that now might be one of those ‘stars aligning’ moments in which big things can happen. Essentially the PSC needs to develop a client-focused approach, with its clients being the rest of the government machinery. For too long, the PSC has or has been perceived to be a gatekeeper, now it needs to become a facilitator. The PSC is where public service managers should look for technical assistance when restructuring their departments, or designing training programmes or reviewing a succession plan. The PSC needs to be equipped and managed to deliver advice and assistance in a timely and professional manner so that those on the front line of service delivery are best supported to do their jobs.

In addition, I hope we will see our new performance management system facilitate the advancement of the talented women working in public service. Some of the most energetic, smart and exciting people I have met are women working within the bureaucracy. But they are woefully under-represented in senior levels and in this we lag behind other Pacific island countries, including Samoa and Solomon Islands.

The national elections of 2016 demonstrated another reason why we need to get behind the public service and invest in excellence. A number of the new members of Parliament are former bureaucrats and I think this is a trend we can expect to continue in the coming years. It is something of a good news/bad news story. The good news is that we get people going into politics that are well qualified and have relevant policy-focused experience. The bad news is that a given ministry or department loses a key actor. Which is why in managing performance, the public sector needs to be developing depth so that there are people able to move up the ranks and take on senior positions when they become vacant. I would encourage every Director General and Director to look around and identify who they would like to see as their replacements. A key part of the performance management system is to work on developing those people now, whether by providing training and development opportunities, through coaching and mentoring or giving them projects to lead.

Managing performance in any organisation is a complex activity and no matter how much we try to make it into a science there will always be a fair amount of art involved. Let’s take this opportunity and use it to build something we can all be proud of.


The dangers of an information deficit when responding to Cyclone Pam

This item from Radio Australia looks at some of the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Pam. One that is not discussed is the importance of communication and information sharing. There has been a lot of confusion and insecurity in the wider community as a result of the NDMO/VHT not providing a regular supply of authoritative, credible information about what they are or are not doing. In the very early stages an activity of this type was hampered by lack of access to communications including radio, social media and text messaging. However, as we know, those services were restored in parts of Port Vila relatively quickly and are continuing to come back on stream elsewhere in the country with each passing day.

The government and partner agencies have of course been very busy doing humanitarian relief and this does not leave a lot of time for telling people what you are doing. But there are significant risks associated with leaving an information vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum and if people are left to fill an information vacuum then they are almost certain to fill it with a bad news story not a good news story. We have seen that happen in the days since the response to Cyclone Pam commenced. Based on what I have talked about with many people plus what is being circulated in traditional and social media, the following things seem to have happened because people simply did not have access to the right or enough information:

  1. People in different parts of the country have no idea how this storm affected other parts of the country and so find it difficult to accept that some areas are more in need of assistance than others.
  2. Particularly in urban and peri-urban areas, people are confused about whether they have been included in the assessments undertaken to determine relief needs, whether they are entitled to food aid or other kinds of relief and how to access relief that they are entitled to.
  3. Rumours have been able to start and spread which might lead you to believe one or more of the following: no aid has been distributed anywhere and is being stockpiled at NDMO where it is raided by NDMO employees; all of the aid has gone to Tanna because that is where the prime minister and the chairman of the National Disaster Committee are from; no aid has gone to Tanna; the aid agencies know what to do but the government won’t let them; the government knows what to do but the aid agencies won’t tow the line. There is no single source of quality information that people can be directed to that can act as a counter to this rumour mill.

The importance of maintaining good information flows goes way beyond simply getting the PR right. It is important from the point of view of transparency and it is a key aspect of maintaining social cohesion in times of stress. It is also important in order to counter a very unhelpful narrative that ‘the government isn’t doing anything’ which in the long term can undermine a population’s (already somewhat tenuous) confidence in the state to provide for them at all. It is also necessary to assist with managing expectations. If people know that their community is expected to receive relief supplies in 5 days time, they can plan for that. Admittedly they may not be happy about the wait but if they receive no information then they are more likely to feel forgotten about or abandoned, either of which would be worse.

Working with the media is one way of keeping people informed about what humanitarian responders are or are not doing. On the other side of things, a mechanism for collecting, collating and distributing inward flows of information would likely assist NDMO/VHT in doing their work even better. There does not appear to be any means for people to deposit information they have gleaned from family and other networks with NDMO/VHT (other than being able to talk your way in to speak to someone who is already so busy that they have difficulty understanding what you are saying). This type of mechanism can help add to responders’ knowledge about what is happening on the ground, including in some very remote areas where every bit of local knowledge would assist in ensuring that relief efforts are appropriate, effective and well managed. Given that a lot of the people assisting government with this response effort are new to Vanuatu, their task would surely be made easier if they had access to updated credible information that was being collected and collated from as many useful sources as possible.

There have certainly been some instances of NDMO using opportunities to communicate with stakeholders and the wider community and I am particularly pleased to see that they recently convened a meeting with all of the country’s politicians. These people are now able to perform a great service to the country by using their networks to give people some concrete facts about what the government is and is not doing in response to Cyclone Pam.

But in terms of ‘lessons learned’ I recommend that NDMO/VHT invest in developing an appropriate communications strategy that will support and strengthen this work in the future.


Resilience and state building – challenges and opportunities in Vanuatu

This item was first published on March 29th, 2015

We have heard a lot about resilience in Vanuatu since the passage of Cyclone Pam, during the 13th and 14th March. I referenced it in a post I wrote a few days after I returned to the country. It has been mentioned with approbation by politicians, decision-makers, UN aid workers and many more.

It is important to understand that resilience, whether of individuals, communities, organisations or states, is not a given. Resilience needs to be supported and preserved. By its very nature, resilience is something that operates over time and so it is important to think and act carefully in the immediate and short term to minimise the risks of undermining longer term resilience.

To date, little has been said about state resilience. Vanuatu, like other Melanesian countries, is often characterised as being relatively weak in terms of state capacity. It is certainly the case that beyond the capital city Port Vila the state’s presence is not extensive. There are schools, aid posts and sometimes police posts. They are often closed because there is no-one to staff them or there are no resources to allow for service delivery. Critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, wharves and airstrips is poorly maintained and likely to be out of action especially when weather conditions deteriorate. All of these conditions pertained long before the arrival of Cyclone Pam.

So how resilient has the state of Vanuatu proved to be in the face of this event, the most significant natural disaster to strike the country in its (almost) 35 years of existence? In the 2+ weeks of immediate response, the machinery of government showed great resilience by showing up and taking control of the emergency response. Further to previous investment in the National Disaster Management Office, including through support from the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, a coordinated and planned approach to assessment and distribution was able to be implemented from day one.

However, as we move to the medium and longer term, gaps in the resilience of state agencies are likely to appear. The public servants who are needed to lead the government’s work in coordination of aid are largely unavailable as they are working within the Emergency Operations Centre on distributing aid. Donors often complain that the central agency responsible for coordinating aid to Vanuatu does little in this regard. The public servants that work within this unit complain that donors do not do enough to comply with what they want to see happen in terms of coordination. The truth of the matter no doubt lies somewhere between these two positions. However, now more than ever, the people of Vanuatu need their government and the country’s donor partners to work together to deliver aid in ways that not only preserve state capacity but capitalise on opportunities to enhance it.

The politics of aid are well known and we have seen them play out in Vanuatu and the wider region or more than one occasion. It is too idealistic to think that all of the mistakes of the past will be avoided in Vanuatu over the coming weeks, months and years. And it is too cynical to say that there is nothing that can be done to prevent the aid circus from overrunning local leadership.

The path for government, policy makers, donors and those who advise them needs to be one based on putting the long term interests of the country and people of Vanuatu first and being committed for the long haul. There are a number of principles that I believe can and should underpin future decisions and developments on all sides. They include:

  • Investing in knowledge aggregation and sharing drawing on expertise, innovative thinking and experience from a wide range of sources.
  • Working with what is already in place, to achieve better multiplier effects and returns on previous and current investments.
  • Taking all steps available to reduce transaction costs in country
  • Managing the risks associated with individuals and organisations manipulating situations to prosecute vested interests rather than achieving objectives of national importance.