Since 2005, the international community has spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to influence the policy decisions of the Government of South Sudan to ensure the world’s newest nation is headed in the right direction. An explosion of workshops, donor funded consultants and reports have evaluated and refined a multitude of different policies. The hope is that if the right policy can be found, improvements in the economy, health, education, governance, etc. will follow.
However, it’s common to hear donors and government officials complain that ‘good’ policies aren’t being implemented, that Ministries are too ‘chaotic’ and do not communicate, or that there is no follow-up on proposed policies.
So what is happening in South Sudan? Why are important policies being implemented so slowly and sometimes not at all?
It is not that every civil servant is lazy, incompetent, corrupt and uninterested in helping their country. In fact there we have worked alongside are a great many determined competent and energetic men and women who are working to ensure South Sudan gets off on the right foot. No, the problem lies in the assumption that preparation of policies leads directly to outcomes. It doesn’t. Experience has proven that the path from policy to action is seldom linear, especially in a newly established country like South Sudan. Actions produce outcomes, and to turn policies into actions you need processes.
South Sudan lacks processes. Processes such as setting priorities, arranging management meetings, maintaining filing systems, drafting letters and preparing briefings constitute the basic systems of a government. They require a cadre of individuals to carry out these basic tasks. In short, South Sudan needs administrators!
Managing such processes is boring. It requires constant monitoring and following-up to ensure policy implementation is clearly documented and heading in the right direction. When these processes do not function, decision making is chaotic, confused and cumbersome. This delays and often derails policy implementation.
For example, is it reasonable to expect a Minister to make a decision in a meeting? Sure. But is it reasonable to expect a Minister to make this decision without having seen a briefing from their department and without senior managers being present? Probably not. What’s more is it reasonable to expect that a decision made under these circumstances will be effectively acted upon? Certainly not. When a Minister or senior manager is responsible for drafting replies to their mail, meeting with every person that requests their time and does not have a management process established to track decisions and progress, policy implementation falls by the wayside. The capacity to manage cannot stop at the top, governments need people who can manage projects. This would allow Ministers and senior managers to make strategic decisions.
A ministry must be able to access and share information, communicate internally and externally and hold regularly scheduled management meetings. These are critical functions to ensure all officials are on the same page and are following up on agreed actions. Without these basic tools, it is not surprising that decision making is rushed, that follow up is inconsistent and that policies don’t translate into actions.
Let’s be clear, the blame for this does not lie solely with the Government or with donors. The problem lies in a general mentality that neglects these important, simple and often boring processes. Instead of ensuring that an existing policy is implemented, donors and government officials often embark on developing new policies, which they believe will fix the problems faced in the past. This multiplication of policies crowd out efforts to implement one policy and are symptomatic of the greatest challenge – prioritisation. Establishing management processes is a full time job, it requires administrators to follow up basic issues and support senior management to manage junior officials. The unfortunate reality appears to be that the Government and donors tend not to recognise the importance of these positions.
These observations are all based on our experiences of working in South Sudan, . We are not arguing that policy advice is wrong or that bad management processes are the only – or even the main – reason policies are not implemented. Politics, a limited willingness to delegate and trust junior staff, funding constraints, and a lack of ownership all create significant impediments to policy implementation. But donors and governments both need to think about how to build institutions that function well. Investment is not just needed in getting the policy ‘right’ but also in making the ‘paper move’. Money needs to be spent on building the capacity of governments to maintain basic administrative and management processes, on training administrators and establishing functional IT systems. No matter how good policies are, without the basics in place - and the people to administer them – implementation will continue to be hindered by chaotic and ineffectual management.