The art of delivery – lessons from working with African governments

March 2, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

Dan Hymowitz (@dhymowit), Acting Director of Development and External Relations for the Africa Governance TBAGI_0010_DR-PhotoInitiative (AGI), reflects on what they’re learning about the development trend of ‘delivery’.

I remember the first time I started to think seriously about delivery: it was just over five years ago sitting in a conference room in Liberia. At the time, I was working with the Liberian Presidency and was in a meeting with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who was exploring whether his nascent initiative – which later became the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) – could usefully support President Sirleaf’s team.

I had expected the agenda to cover big themes: plugging infrastructure gaps, creating thousands of jobs or perhaps unlocking growth in the cocoa or rubber industries. Instead one of the most recognisable political leaders of the 20th century attempted to convince us that diary management was a critical aspect of Liberia’s future development. I won’t lie. It felt a little mundane.

Once I got past the anti-climax his point began to resonate with me. What if President Sirleaf’s diary were a just bit more efficient and tightly focused on her priorities? Wouldn’t that mean more helpful pressure on, and support to, the relevant ministers? What if her team managed the overwhelming flow of paperwork to her desk better? This could mean freeing up her time to focus on big picture reforms in education or energy.

I was also struck by how different this starting point was from a lot of other international development programmes; too often more preoccupied with minimising a leader’s ability to do harm than maximising their ability to do good. I didn’t know it then, but two-plus years later I would end up joining AGI where recently I’ve been working on the first article in our ‘art of delivery’ series: reflections from AGI’s experience working with governments in ten African countries since 2008.

AGIJ4113_Delivery_1I’ve learned a lot in that time and so has AGI. For example, early on we probably did focus too much on delivery units as the mechanism to drive results from the centre of government. These units sit at the heart of government tracking progress on leaders’ priorities and intervening to solve implementation problems. But we’ve seen that such units aren’t always the answer and that it’s better to consider a toolbox of potential delivery approaches – from performance contracts to stocktakes to positive incentives for high-performing ministers.

So why write about delivery now? Because delivery – supporting political leaders to bridge the gap between their visions and implementation of reforms that make a difference in citizens’ lives – is at the heart of what AGI does. And while just a few years ago we sometimes felt we were some of the only ones talking about this, that’s no longer the case. Today there’s a proliferation of delivery units and mechanisms around the world – 15 at the national level in 6 continents – and countless other similar bodies with slightly different names.

The series is called the ‘art of delivery’ because we want to bring together two strands of thinking that seem separated at the moment: ‘delivery’ and ‘doing development differently’. On delivery, as we discuss in our first paper, while the emerging interest in implementation and results is a welcome development trend, some of the current literature and thinking is too focused on technical aspects of delivery like performance monitoring and setting up delivery units. These things are important. But the risk is leaving out areas the doing development differently AGIJ4113_Delivery_3movement emphasises like adapting approaches to the local context and navigating politics. For example, in one country we’ve worked in, delivery unit staff didn’t feel they had the authority to challenge ministers because the unit didn’t have the full backing of the President. The result was a body that went through the motions of ‘monitoring’ progress without any real teeth. Figuring out how to fix this is more art than science.

In our series we look at common mistakes or dysfunctions that we’re seeing in delivery work.  The first article focuses on how many in development underemphasize the political aspects of delivery such as harnessing the use of power and incentives. Our second piece will examine how when you try to fix everything, nothing gets done. Prioritization is a pre-requisite for successful delivery but for many reasons – including that it’s hard to stick to – it’s usually not done well. Our third piece gets into how international partners can get fixated on form over function in delivery and are not willing enough to adapt delivery systems to evolving challenges. And finally, we’ll look at something international partners too often forget when supporting delivery: that ‘how matters’ and that if your staff don’t work with governments in ways that build genuine trust, the delivery systems you’re supporting won’t work.

These days our team in Liberia is focused on the bigger issues. In fact we are now looking at how to unlock growth in the cocoa and rubber industries. In the intervening years we’ve tried lots of ways to support delivery in Liberia – some more successful than others. President Sirleaf now has less than two years left in office. If her ambitious agenda to build roads, expand electricity and improve schools is to succeed, then her schedule will continue to matter as much as her strategy.