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Article Article April 6th, 2016

Colombia's next chapter: ideas to implementation

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A delivery unit helps ministries and agencies, calling them to account when problems emerge

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It is critical for colleagues at the centre to avoid claiming credit for delivery successes

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Ensuring a common line of action from the president’s office to the country’s territories is key

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“Delivery is the most important challenge that governments face,” asserts Colombia's Paula Acosta.

Granted, it's the sort of thing you might expect to hear from someone with direct responsibility for policy implementation, but Acosta is no typical government staffer. Hers is a career that has taken in many twists and turns - from serving as vice-minister of health to deputy director of the National Planning Department. Even her background marks her out from the crowd - an industrial engineer from the Universidad de los Andes, she also holds a master's in economics from Georgetown University and a master's in public administration from Syracuse University in New York State.

Acosta believes delivery is so important because of the direct thread that is woven between policy implementation and the ballot box. “The way in which a politician fulfils their campaign promise - succeeding or failing - is the reason why people decide to vote for them or not,” she says. “That's what it comes down to.”

Prioritising the priorities

Acosta has been serving as a top adviser to Colombia's chief of staff, María Lorena Gutiérrez, since 2014. As her top aide on government implementation and execution, she oversees a broad array of policies, helping guide them from drawing board to delivery. The ultimate aim of the Santos administration, she says, is to accelerate the ongoing transition from the country's violent past to a more secure future. “We have definitely made strides towards improving security, but our biggest challenge - not only in terms of delivery but also the priority of society as a whole - is achieving peace,” she explains. “This is the biggest challenge that we have as a government.”

There's little doubt that progress has been made. The fourth biggest economy in Latin America, Colombia has a growth rate of about 4% and can call on significant natural resources to help propel future advances. Operating in parallel with her economic colleagues, Acosta and her team are focused on ensuring that the country's government is fulfilling its objectives. She cites several factors as key to her approach.

“When you first introduce a policy, everyone is working towards a common goal,” she says. “But when problems appear, the common tendency is to try and change the target. But once you have committed to a target then you have to stay true to it - regardless of the desire to opt for something easier to achieve. A delivery unit also has to play a dual role - helping ministries and agencies as well as calling them to account when problems emerge.”

She goes on to say that it is critical for colleagues at the centre of government to avoid claiming credit for delivery successes. Instead, the spotlight should be on departments and agencies responsible for the actual delivering. “After all, we are the back office but the agencies and ministries are the front line. But while it is important for them to receive the credit, it also means that they should receive the criticism, if that's necessary.”

This means that Acosta places a high priority on coordination - ensuring that there is a common line of action running from the president's office in Bogotá across the country's territories. This is easier said than done, it transpires. “It is far simpler to coordinate policies in the abstract than actually implement them in our territories - they are all different,” she says. “This means we have to really focus on our coordination. But at the same time we are also thinking about how we are going to deliver in the post-conflict regions. Since we have been so successful in the last five years in moving people out of poverty, the task now is to maintain this momentum within a global economic context that is challenging - Latin America is no exception to external pressures.”

Inside knowledge

Acosta's approach to her current role has been very much shaped by her experiences on the other side of the fence - working in senior positions in ministries. The personal knowledge of the reality of life in the ministerial hot seat has been hugely helpful, she admits.

“You think very differently when you work in a finance department or planning ministry - or any of the ministries that actually have to implement policies,” she says. “You can't stop with just having a good idea. Instead, you have to figure out the whole process from start to finish and anticipate what the potential problems will be or what regulations you will have to change to make things happen. It's not just policy design, but also thinking in terms of implementing the policy in the field.”

Similarly, her eclectic background prior to entering government service continues to have a strong impact on her day-to-day activities. “I rely very much on my engineering training,” she explains. “This is my bedrock. It has helped me think about processes. And when you can think about processes, then you can think about all the problems that can get in the way. And when you think as an economist you always think about incentives and people's behaviour. And when you're trying to implement a new process, you have to know what you're talking about and what tools to deploy - and this comes from my experiences working in the public sector and also in my background as a public administrator. It all works together.”

Although it is clear that Acosta's eyes are fixed firmly on the road ahead, she says that she is unsure about whether governments will continue to use delivery units in the future. What she is sure of, however, is that the need to keep developing the tools and techniques that help governments implement their policies will never fade from the scene.

“This is not rocket science,” she says. “We are in the business of not only designing policy but also implementing it, and that is the change in the mindset we are encouraging. Technical analysis is important but it has to go all the way - from understanding the problem to actually implementing the solution. It's what the voters expect - and what the voters deserve. This will never change - in Colombia or around the world.”



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