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Article Article October 19th, 2016

Turning policy into action in Colombia

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Paula Acosta: Colombia's turbulent past makes government delivery all the more challenging

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Paula Acosta: Once you have committed to a target then you have to stay true to it

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Paula Acosta: You think very differently when you actually have to implement policies

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Turning an idea into impact - delivery in other words - is the most important challenge that any government faces. In Colombia, however, it is a challenge underpinned by deep-rooted complexities arising from our turbulent past. Although ours is a country fast emerging into a new era of peace and prosperity - we are now the fourth biggest economy in Latin America and have a growth rate of about 4% - achieving lasting peace, particularly in light of the recent referendum result, is our number one priority.

Delivery details

I have been serving as the main adviser to Colombia's chief of staff - first María Lorena Gutiérrez and, more recently, Luis Guillermo Velez - since 2014. As their top aide on government implementation and execution, I oversee a broad array of policies, helping guide them from drawing board to delivery.

When you introduce a policy, everyone is working towards a common goal. But when problems appear, the common tendency is to try and change the target. And 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. After all, this is not rocket science. We are in the business of not only designing policy but also implementing it, and that is the change in mindset that we are encouraging.

To this end, I have learned that it is critical for colleagues at the centre of government to avoid claiming credit for delivery successes. This is because we are in the back office but the agencies and ministries are on 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.

Coordination, then, is vital. In Colombia this means that there is a common line of action running from the president's office in Bogotá right across the country's territories - and this is not straightforward because each territory is different. 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 challenging global economic context - Latin America is not immune from external pressures.

Ministerial mindset

My past experience of working in senior positions in ministries has been hugely beneficial. This is because you think very differently when you work in a finance department or a planning ministry - or any of the ministries that actually have to implement policies. You can't be satisfied 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 and what regulations you'll 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.

There is little doubt that the need to keep developing the tools and techniques that help governments implement their policies will never fade from the scene. 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.


  • Colombia's next chapter: ideas to implementation. Colombia is fast emerging from a turbulent past into a new era of peace and prosperity. Paula Acosta, director of strategic delivery for President Santos, tells us about keeping up the momentum
  • The time to deliver is now. Few government careers have been as focused on delivery as Sir Michael Barber's. Here, he tells Adrian Brown about lessons learned and challenges ahead
  • Data to delivery. Former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, Martin O'Malley, tells us about a new approach to governance and delivery
  • If ‘delivery' is such a good idea, why doesn't everyone care? A renewed focus on the mechanics of delivery makes sense for governments around the world, says Donald Kettl. But more needs to be done to win over sceptics
  • Yes, Mr President. Falling energy prices may be hitting its revenues but Bolivia's former president, Jorge Quiroga, says the future remains bright. He explains how to navigate the policymaking landscape
  • Mexico's moment. Mexico's President Peña is on a mission to shake up his country's business, social and political structures. But no reforms matter more than those revolutionising its energy sector, explains Eduardo León
  • Driving the delivery of development. Overseeing the World Bank Group's delivery unit is more than just keeping score, explains Melanie Walker

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