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Interview Article November 9th, 2015

Prioritising government delivery priorities: voices of delivery

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Total commitment from the highest level of government is needed for transformations

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While data is critical, it should always be corroborated by anecdotal evidence

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For any transformation programme, governments need to start with a general goal

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Omari Issa, chief executive of the President's Delivery Bureau, Tanzania

The key ingredient in delivering a transformation programme is total commitment from the highest level of government - either the president or the prime minister. In Tanzania, our president recognised that we needed to move from the traditional way of governing into delivery. We subsequently went through a government-led engagement process whereby major stakeholders in the country - academics, civil society, and so on - came together to deliberate and agree about what priorities we should focus on to enable our country to move forward.

We picked six sectors as a first step - agriculture, education, energy in rural areas, resource mobilisation, water and transportation - and for each we agreed what the priorities should be. For example, in agriculture we agreed that we should become self-sufficient in the main food crop within three years, and we actually met this target in the first year.

We have sought to ensure that we have everyone focused on the same end vision, and hold people accountable along the line. We measure week by week; we share those results with everyone in the country week by week and, at the end of the year, we publish the results and so everyone knows how ministries have performed. It is a very transparent process. We have found that it is important to have clear and transparent messages and to share the results as you go through the process. If you communicate regularly and openly, then you'll be much better understood by your key stakeholders and the general population as well.

But it is important to be flexible. We live in a fast-changing world - who could have predicted a few years ago that oil prices would be where they are today? And so we have to be dynamic, not static, and not stay wedded to targets that have become out of date. But to do this you need to engage with stakeholders so that they understand what is going on and really involve people from the ground up.

Looking at the past, in several countries including Tanzania, 90% of government time has been focused on policy and 10% on delivery. We need to address the imbalance and put more emphasis on delivery and relatively less on policy. The President's Delivery Bureau is proud to be playing a small part in this evolution.

Dato' Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim, former deputy director general and head of the Delivery Management Office, Ministry of Education, Malaysia

Malaysia is currently in the middle of a 12-year programme of reforms that aim to transform its education system for the better. We see education as a key component of our drive to become a high-income nation and, as such, are implementing a series of short- and long-term changes to the country's education system.

But before the implementation started, we needed to create some consensus about what it was we should be focusing on. Where should we reform? What should we do? How could we create momentum behind the programme? To answer these questions, we engaged in a series of discussions with key stakeholders from inside and outside government. From day one, we were determined to be inclusive and, as a result of these debates, we identified four focus areas that would make up the National Key Results Areas (NKRA) for Education.

Firstly, we placed more emphasis on preschool education, because studies have shown that children who have been through preschool are much better prepared for the next stages of education - socially and academically. There was only a 67% preschool enrolment rate in 2009, but now it is 84% and the aim is 87%.

Secondly, we discovered that in primary and secondary school there were children who didn't have the necessary literacy or numeracy levels. And so we agreed that, for the first three years of primary school, all children would go through a systematic literacy and numeracy programme. Thirdly, we created new criteria for high-performing schools in order to best support our most gifted students. And finally, we created an initiative called ‘the New Deal', which was designed to support and reward the head teachers and teachers who made the best impact on student outcomes.

We had a solid two months of working out the specific goals - with leaders from all the key departments and agencies involved in intense discussions. But at the end of day, education is all about the impact for the child. It is crucial to listen to what the people on the ground have to say. You can't make decisions when stuck in an ivory tower, as it is the execution and implementation that determine success. To this end, everyone working in government needs to stop working in silos - you have to collaborate to make things happen.

Tengku Nurul Azian Tengku Shahriman, director of the Education, Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU), Malaysia

We make no bones about it - Malaysia wants to be a high-income nation by 2020. This is our first long-term goal and we have a series of projects under way that will power us to this destination - a process that includes investment of USD444 billion and the creation of 3.3 million jobs by 2020.

We understand that some of these projects may fail. And so this is why we have a relentless platform for problem-solving, because good plans fail due to poor execution. Through a problem-solving platform chaired by the respective ministers, government ministries have been entrusted with ensuring that that these projects will be delivered and come to fruition. And so we sought to remove the roadblocks, slowly but surely.

But we live in the real world and some of these projects - while looking great on paper - don't work in practice. For example, the New Deal is designed to help reward those top-performing principals who push their schools up the ranks. This initiative sounds fine in theory, but there is evidence to show that it can lead to undesirable outcomes, such as teaching students to the test, not allowing special needs students to sit for national exams, and creaming good students from other schools. We adopted a recursive approach of re-examining and improving the New Deal, which led us to look at other incentives that we could deploy.

Prior to joining PEMANDU, I worked in the private sector, and so I was familiar with data and clear targets. PEMANDU's role is also to study data. But while data is critical, I also tell my team to look at it with a small dose of cynicism. It should always be corroborated by other data points, anecdotal evidence, surveys, or focus group discussion, to ensure that it tells the whole story.

Patience is also important. To do this job you require tenacity and stakeholder management skills. A strategic plan is also necessary, but it needs to be at a granular level, so much so that my successor would instantly know how to do it the day after I have moved on. While you have to be sensitive - remember you're dealing with people, and you must be diplomatic when dealing with stakeholders - tenacity is crucial because results are not immediate; when you give up, then that's the end of your strategic plan.

Charles Sabel, professor of law and social science, Columbia Law School

For any transformation programme, governments need to start with a general goal, to which all efforts will be directed. If you like, call this ‘true north'. It is necessary, but it is also insufficient. There needs to be a second process, one that will determine the particular goals that support progress towards the overarching vision.

This process of particularising goals should involve a range of people who know directly about the problems they face and the possible solutions. The group of participants should not be limited to authoritative current stakeholders. It should include their subordinates, as well as ‘outside' groups - in short, those who may have been excluded from prior discussions but have information and experience that bears importantly on what is or isn't working.

Widening the circle of participation in this way is crucial to setting particular goals and establishing initial solutions. Bring in people from the ground level - including citizens who are affected by the services, but also the people who provide the services. Listening to the voices of interest groups is not enough - the requirement is to select people who are passionately engaged and are willing to spend up to six weeks arguing with each other to set goals.

This process is dynamic. It generates ideas, discussion of which leads to revision. Once ideas are provisionally fixed, experts are invited to consider the budgetary projections and whether they are consistent with the available means. This process generates goals that are feasible and worth achieving. Without it, there is no way to true north.

But indispensable as this process is, it still yields fallible results. Only 30% of the targets PEMANDU sets are realised in the way initially specified. The remaining 70% are revised by an elaborate, disciplined process that keeps decision-making close to the ground - where the key information is. The penalty for obstruction is that unresolved conflicts get ‘bumped up' to higher levels of decision-makers - at an increasing risk of embarrassing those who could not reason their way to a solution. But even though 70% of the goals are revised during the course of implementation, the initial specifications were not worthless just because they had to be changed. They are invaluable probes that reveal information that was not visible at the beginning of the process.

The bottom line is that the government, private sector and civil society actors can't get workable goals unless they break free of the limits of their past exchanges - and unless they recognise that, even then, most of the tasks they set for themselves will have to be revised through an ongoing evaluation of experience.


  • Measure for measure. For Melanie Walker, overseeing the World Bank Group's delivery unit is more than just keeping score. She tells us why it's really all about a fundamental transformation that aims to free a billion people from the grip of extreme poverty
  • It's all about impact. Governments need to rethink and reset their approach to delivery, suggests Larry Kamener
  • From vision to reality. Government leaders worldwide share the objective of making an impact and getting things done but it's rarely straightforward - Hans-Paul Buerkner offers some advice
  • The time to deliver is now. Sir Michael Barber reflects on the lessons learned and insights gained from a career at the heart of government delivery
  • Voices of delivery. A selection of government delivery leaders reveal how they seek to implement policy proposals

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