• Saudi Arabia is moving forward with its Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Programme
  • The proposed reforms in Saudi leave no corner of the country’s society or economy untouched
  • Government capacity is a challenge: moves are afoot to recruit more talent into ministries

Dr Saleh Alamr’s passion for the advancement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) burns nearly as brightly as the country’s summer sunshine.

As director general of the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF), he works at the heart of the country’s government and has a key role to play in the implementation of its Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Programme (NTP). Fortunately, he’s not one to flinch from such a challenge. On the contrary – he embraces it.

“To tell you the truth, the past 18 months have been the best of my life,” he says, smiling broadly. “Over the past few years I have moved between several different roles, in different ministries and sectors. But now I am here at the Ministry of Labour and Social Development. I’ve gone from strategising to actually implementing strategies, and I wouldn’t change anything.”

Tick, tock: transform

Let’s face it, KSA’s is hardly the first government to announce an ambitious reform programme. Blueprints and proposals adorn public sector horizons around the world. But while they are often published to a huge fanfare, the end results can fall short of the original aims. This could be down to bureaucratic inertia or the risk-averse nature of some policymakers, but it also speaks to the sheer difficulty of delivering transformation. With comfort zones cast aside, politicians and civil servants have to adjust to new targets and new realities. No wonder that change programmes the world over can be counted on to create a proliferation of new challenges.

For KSA, the stakes are even higher. The 2030 Vision – published last year – commits the government to all manner of new goals and objectives, all underpinned by the desire to become a country at the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds, an investment powerhouse, and the hub connecting three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe. In other words, it is about crafting a future of diversification, one that is not as reliant on oil and is therefore less vulnerable to the ups and downs of global prices.

Given that the country has the largest oil reserves in the world, it’s quite a statement. Alamr, though, is confident that this is no pipedream. “The Vision shows a clear pathway about where we want to go, but it also has detailed goals – 96 in total,” he explains. “These are shared among 12 different Vision realisation programmes, which are the responsibility of different ministries. It clarifies where our priorities are and allows real oversight over the whole of government to make sure we are all working in the same direction.”

To illustrate the radical nature of these proposals, he cites the example of education. It’s an issue close to his heart, as he began his government career at the country’s Technical and Vocational Training Corporation. “Under the Vision, we have – for the first time – directly linked improving the education system to increasing employment levels,” he says. “We have never made that clear link before. This is important because it is well known that KSA has the highest levels of youth unemployment in the region. For every 100 members of a graduating class in secondary education, more than 30 will be unemployed. This is such a waste of potential.”

In their hunt for solutions, Alamr and his colleagues are looking far beyond KSA’s borders. “Each issue demands its own individual solution,” he points out. “For unemployment, we can look at a country like Germany and see that it is very strong on skills training and on-the-job support. But its local job placement centres are not as effective as those in the UK. So, we can learn from different countries to tackle different dimensions of each issue and ensure that our citizens – men and women alike – can benefit.

Accelerating towards implementation

Alamr is speaking 35 floors up, in the boardroom of the HRDF, deep in downtown Riyadh. The panoramic view of the city – its mix of architecture old and new – serves as an apt metaphor for both the Vision and the NTP. Here we have two plans, each tasked with preserving sacred traditions and history but at the same time preparing a fast-rising population for the challenges of the future. Easier said than done.

It should come as little surprise, then, that neither plan leaves Saudi’s policymakers with a shortage of priorities and objectives. The Vision alone covers subjects that range from strengthening the national culture to reforming housing policy to improving the business environment. Alamr, however, is focusing on the labour market. The HRDF was set up to strengthen the national workforce and help ensure that young Saudis have a clear pathway towards sustainable employment in the private sector. He is clear that this is an area ripe for reform.

“The Ministry of Labour has in the past dealt with two labour markets – foreign and local,” he explains. “Historically, the laws and regulations managing these markets have been different. We have ended up with a fragmented labour market with different levels of mobility and different labour quality as well. But under the Vision and the NTP, we are trying to redesign all the policies related to the labour market so that they are joined up and benefit all the labour force.”

Now this all sounds good. Few – if any – would argue against such objectives, and no one can doubt Alamr’s sincerity. But it does prompt this question: how is it all going to be done? Fortunately, Alamr well recognises that talk is one thing, implementation quite another.

“One of the weakest elements of our previous planning and implementation was that our governance systems were insufficient,” he admits. “We weren’t able to audit and govern programme implementations. But now we have new institutions – like the Delivery Unit and Adaa – to measure our progress. So now we have the right organisational setup to make sure that the promises are fulfilled.” And he also points out that implementation of the NTP – which was released before the Vision – is already well under way.  “We’re in the process of iterating our progress and amending it to make sure that it is fully aligned with the Vision,” he says.

Breaking down the barriers

As anyone studying or participating in transformation can attest, there will inevitably be some issues to overcome once the changes have been set in motion. That’s why things like leadership alignment and pacing the changes – knowing when to go fast or go slow – are so crucial. Alamr is well aware that they will not always have the wind at their back.

“We have focused hard on any shortfalls and tried our best to fill the gaps, but there are risks – starting with capacity,” he admits. “We need to make sure that the core teams responsible for the implementation in our ministries receive as much attention as the new governance arrangements. A lot of focus – perhaps too much focus – has gone on the governance, and we need to be sure that the ministries can to do the actual implementation. This is the biggest risk at this moment in time, but I’m also sure there will be some initiatives to mitigate this.”

He is also sure that the unified approach to both the Vision and the NTP will prove hugely valuable. For example, a suggestion that the government may fall victim to siloed ministries acting independently of each other receives short shrift.

“This won’t be a problem anymore,” he says, confidently. “Whatever plans are put on the table are plans based on mutual agreement with other ministries. The problem is that even after getting these plans, the assumption has been that ministries have enough capacity to deliver them. We have the best dashboards, but we need to attract the local talent into government in order to implement them. So it’s about powering up the government engine.”

And how will this happen? “The government has endorsed several programmes where the ministries can recruit local talent, and many youngsters have been employed,” he replies. “But still, cascading through different levels in each department is not an easy task. I believe it is going to be dependent on the enthusiasm of the ministers themselves, because they are responsible at the end of the day.”

Next stop 2030

Alamr is a man of international education. After graduating top of his class, he conducted his postgraduate studies – in Electrical and Electronic Engineering – at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, receiving an MSc and PhD in the process. “I didn’t know about the cold weather, but I did know that it was the best university in the world for my specialism,” he recalls. “I was the only Saudi there, so it was a tremendous opportunity for me to learn about other people – their cultures, their approaches, and their perspectives.”

Perhaps that’s why he places such emphasis on ensuring that the Saudi populace is given the opportunity to add their voice to any new law or regulation. Sometimes this happens via social media – each ministry uses these tools to request comments and feedback – but there are also more formal processes in place. After all, you must consider who the changes are affecting – top down has its place in any transformation, but so too does bottom up.

“The most important new laws are endorsed by the Council of Ministers, but prior to that they go to the parliament (the Shoura Council), where public participation is very transparent and there are always lots of discussions,” says Alamr. “At our ministry, any law or regulation is published three months before it is implemented. In part, this is because the labour market is very sensitive and we don’t want to disturb it by introducing changes without warning. In this three-month window, we ask for all comments and feedback and then in another three months the regulations are introduced. The public comments add value to what we have in each ministry, so it is very important for us.”

This chorus of voices helps add legitimacy to the reforms and this, clearly, is to be welcomed – particularly given the scale of the proposed reforms, which leave no corner of the country’s society or economy untouched. And while 2030 might seem far into the future, there is no time to waste. Regardless of a country’s system of government, change on this scale is neither quick nor easy. But Alamr, for one, is relishing the opportunity.

“We want a strong, thriving and stable Saudi Arabia,” he concludes, “and one that provides opportunity for all our men and women.” Now that’s an alluring image, one that will surely power up the government machine for the twists and turns that lie ahead.

 

FURTHER READING

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  • Transforming technology, transforming government. Rare is the policymaker who doesn’t see digital as a doorway for strengthening public services. But as Miguel Carrasco explains, the pace of the digital evolution means there is always more to do
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office’s first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government
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