Tales of government delivery in Chile

Claudio Seebach shakes his head – a somewhat unusual move for someone normally so positive and upbeat.

“Delivery is not about ideology,” he says firmly. “I have seen it prioritised by political parties on the left and the right. What it is really all about is a way of actually achieving the results that a government aims for. It doesn’t matter which party is in charge – it’s all about taking an idea and making it happen for real.”

Certainly, that’s what he aimed to do when serving under fomer Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, where he was responsible for coordination of policy priorities and the President’s Delivery Unit (PDU). This four-year stint thrust him into the heart of the government, giving him oversight over key operations, as well as responsibility for ensuring that the Chile’s policymakers had the necessary capacity and resources to deliver on campaign pledges aplenty. It was far from straightforward, it transpires.

“The biggest challenge we found was changing the culture of government,” he recalls. “We called it the ‘Stockholm effect’ whereby once a minister gets to lead a ministry, they are soon captured by the priorites of the ministry and the wider government ambitions can get cast aside.” And that was one thing there was no shortage of: government ambitions.

Chile’s programme of priorities

President Piñera was elected in January 2010. His was an agenda broad in scope and aspirational in nature. Perhaps this reflected his stellar business career – one that saw him amass a self-made billion dollar fortune prior to entering politics. The confidence that comes with such success may well have prompted his assurance that small measures would not do – it was time to think big.

Even though Chile has long enjoyed consistent growth and stability – particularly when compared to the rest of Latin America – the new administration felt that more could be done to raise standards: living, economic, social and government itself. “There had been adequate policies over the past 20 years or so but there had been persistent issues for successive governments when it came to actually ‘delivering’ on their promises,” points out Seebach. “We felt that government had suffered a deterioration when it came to execution.”

With this in mind, the first thing the president did was set out his plans for what his administration planned to achieve – both in the four-year period and longer term. “The ambitions were prioritised and laid out in his annual set-piece speech to Congress a couple of months after taking over,” recalls Seebach. “He used this speech to identify seven key priorities and explained what he wanted the country to look like at the end of his four-year term.”

Perhaps drawing on his private sector background, Piñera identified economic growth as his main concern. “Chile’s economy performed well in the 1990s but the next decade saw this progress fall back and it was vital that we improved our trajectory,” points out Seebach. “And so we targeted 6% growth a year, as well as setting specific targets for increasing investment and reducing budget deficit.”

The second priority was employment and this was along two dimensions: creating a million new jobs and improving the quality of those jobs. “By quality we meant wages, safety and sustainability,” explains Seebach, “and the third was education which was more difficult as the time frames don’t correlate with the four-year term in office. But we said we wanted to improve our PISA scores and reduce the difference between the best and least performing schools, as well as improving the quality of the teachers.”

Crime and health care were also identified as key areas to focus on, even though Chile was the safest country in the region and also had the highest life expectancy. And the sixth priority was quality of government and democracy.  “This sounds a little fuzzy,” concedes Seebach, “but it related to things like boosting trust in government, better transparency, cutting red tape and increased democratic participation. And the seventh priority was poverty and inequality. We wanted to reduce extreme poverty rates from 3.7% down to virtually nothing by the end of the term – and this was linked to wider goals around jobs and economic growth.”

Although seven priorities were originally planned, the number became eight in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck the country in the time between the election and the new administration taking over. A detailed and robust infrastructure reconstruction programme was soon added to the list.

Lessons from the centre

So, how did Seebach and his colleagues go about turning these grand plans into reality? First up was defining the targets and creating detailed action plans. They also set up delivery teams and partnered with different agencies to achieve change – and Seebach says this was a crucial first step.

“You have to start building relationships early on, partnering with the actual people who are going to do the delivery to ensure a sense of joint ownership of a programme,” he says. “Without this, you can have beautiful power point decks but nothing will actually get done. The role of the centre is to create the ambitions and push hard, moving people out of their comfort zone if necessary, but it has to be inclusive and you have to spread the credit – this has to be a success story for those doing the delivering. The delivery unit, at the centre of government, has to be virtually invisible, serving others.”

Despite the lofty goals that were set, Seebach says that expectations management is also critical. “On one side, stretch targets help persuade people to work hard to get things done. But on the other side, you can aim too high and miss, or if communicated badly, people take what you achieve for granted so it is a fine line to tread. This means that you also need clear accountabilities – so everyone knows who is doing what.”

To this end, he believes that the delivery unit’s role in the process is primarily to facilitate and enable. “The person in charge needs adequate help to do their job and there needs to be a permanent delivery dialogue in place to unblock any problems,” he says. “The main task of the delivery unit is to help unblock issues in the system and empower those on the frontline. It should only intervene to make the ministries’ role easier. The temptation to micro-manage should always be avoided.”

And civil society has an increasingly important role to play. “Civil society is increasingly involved with the monitoring of results and making government accountable for what it promises,” he points out. “This means it is far better to work with NGOs and include them in the process – which is something that we tried to do a lot.”

Chile’s constitution limits a president to one term and prevents them from standing from re-election immediately. This meant that results such as improving the quality of teachers and school principals and its impact on school performance can take many for years to reflect. Also, despite important results in actual crime reduction, people’s fear of being victim of crime remained high. One of the most important results was the reconstruction of Chile after the 2010 earthquake, a remarkable feat, with 220,000 new homes built in four years and 17 hospitals built or recovered, among many others.

Piñera’s successor – much to Seebach’s evident frustration – saw fit to scrap the delivery structure and associated targets. “One of the things I have noticed is that if the delivery approach is too closely associated to a president it is not seen as a permanent fixture of government,” he says. “This means that one of the biggest challenges is making it sustainable as governments always have a problem of crediting the previous government with anything.”

Nonetheless Seebach – who is now serving as executive vice president for the Electricity Generators of Chile – remains proud of what he and his team accomplished. “Delivery is not going away,” he says. “Although we need to do more to ensure that more governments adopt this approach, citizens have every right to expect results from their government. At the end of the day, no politician is going to ignore this increasing chorus of voices.”



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