Adaptive management in the time of Covid: five lessons from Pakistan’s Sub-National Governance programme

During Covid-19, the government in Pakistan developed a policy framework and recovery plan in record time with support from the Pakistan Sub-National Governance programme II (SNG), operating in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces.


  • Fayyaz Mohammad Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (MERL) Lead, Pakistan and Nepal

As the impact of Covid-19 continued in Pakistan, SNG found itself needing to swiftly adapt to the changing context and re-position its technical competency in order to respond to the immediate demands and priorities of the government. Two provincial governments developed a robust policy framework and recovery plan with technical assistance (TA) support from the programme. This included the RISE Punjab strategy (Responsive Investment for Social Protection and Economic Stimulus), and the Azm-e-Nau KP Economic Recovery Plan (2020-23). Both these reform plans are under implementation by government, and their impacts are visible on provincial Annual Development Programmes (ADPs).[1]

What factors complemented the governments’ outstanding performance? Are these conditions and factors replicable for regular reform work with governments? What lessons can we extract from this extraordinary time? We list five key takeaways from this experience below:

1. Reforms work best when they have robust linkages and there is clear authority and acceptance from within the government for the need to change and improve service delivery for citizens.

Moreover, the government reform agenda is strengthened when TA plans of donor programmes complement political priorities, without substituting institutional capacities. Collectively, in the case of SNG, these synergies led to the identification and redirection of more than £2 billion of under-utilised funds in KP and Punjab's ADPs towards supporting the provinces' Covid-19 relief and recovery measures during 2020.

2. Focusing on TA strategic reforms that really matter helps achieve tangible results.

It’s important to avoid the risk of overwhelming government systems and focus on systems that achieve results with minimal coordination and as few steps as possible. Avoid putting the TA into byzantine systems where success is transactional. While working with the government, it’s important to bear in mind the difficulties of good governance and the limitations of isomorphic mimicry. Building capacities is a long run phenomenon involving carefully managed government expectations and evasion of capacity substitution. Where governance is weak, it’s necessary to accept the fact that government can’t do all things. Informed by this understanding, our focused approach and TA helped governments improve planning and budgeting and ultimately, better targeting of money. In Punjab a novel Workers Repository strategy – now being rolled out – will help identify and register up to 37 million informal workers for financial assistance and employment opportunities during the crisis.

3. No single project can address all technical needs of the government.

Loop in other donor programmes and foster a partnership strategy through government. Leverage this opportunity to extend the collaborative support outside your current domain. Covid-19 provided an opportunity to partner with new government institutions. This led to the achievement of common reform objectives and responding to emerging reform needs. SNG supported Education and Health departments in the development of their post-Covid-19 sector plans, provided support to the Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) Department, and Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) in KP.

4. Use alternative forms of authorisation to identify and push for new reforms.

This reduces the transaction costs for the government reform and decision-making process to improve institutional systems and capabilities. During the early stages of Covid-19, SNG successfully identified a need for further reforms within the government using the space for informal authorisation. The Punjab RISE strategy led to the development of an ADP prioritisation framework, which enabled government to reduce its throw-forward liability by about 30%. In KP, an analysis of ADP informed the government of 37 projects that were burdening the ADP, and could be shifted to the recurrent expenditure. This created fiscal space for development planning for future ADPs.

5. Use a media and communication strategy to share results.

Build change stories using representative consultations, a robust analytical framework and evidence-based recommendations. Accountability and inclusion, which is generally a secondary agenda in government corridors, suddenly got the spotlight because of the nature of pandemic: affecting the economically vulnerable, marginalised and people-with-disabilities. SNG facilitated government consultations with citizens around budget priorities, carried out vulnerability assessments and prepared policy notes for enhanced accountability of government plans; prepared with greater participation of civil society. This contributed to building a greater public trust in government during the crisis.


The Covid-19 crisis in Pakistan demonstrated that even when there is a panic and sudden shift in priorities, the core principles of what is good development are critical to ensuring policy reforms are responsive and sustainable. Political authorisation coupled with close coordination with the government and contemporary donor programmes provides leverage for technical assistance work to take place and fill in competency gaps. Not only are well defined and politically astute institutions needed in normal times, but even more so in times of crisis when they can provide action and leadership.

About the author:

Fayyaz Mohammad is a senior consultant in OPM’s Governance team, and is based in Pakistan. His recent work involved development of, and implementation support to, the monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) framework of the FCDO-funded Pakistan Sub-National Governance programme II (SNG), 2019-23.


[1] Provincial ADPs are annually developed in Pakistan for the fiscal year July-June. These represent development priorities of the present political government, and are approved by the Provincial Assembly. The progress is steered by the Planning & Development and Finance departments, with the participation of provincial departments and agencies. This exercise is based on the guidelines provided by the federal government as well as provincial government, in accordance with the national and provincial priorities and resource availability. As a result of the ADP formulation exercise, the size and the direction of the public sector programme in the province is determined.

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