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Practitioner Insights: making change happen

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How to secure lasting change in large public service reform programmes.

Stephen Akroyd, Practitioner Insights

Securing enduring, impactful reform in government is a challenge globally.Governments and donors are increasingly recognising that behavioural change is necessary if a reform programme is going to have sustainable, irreversible impact — and that a series of tick boxes might lead to change that is only surface-deep. While each programme requires context-specific tailoring, in this ‘Practitioner Insights’ article we have outlined a broadly-applicable ten-step model of change, based on OPM’s experience of delivering large and complex programmes, to help secure enduring, impactful reform.

One of the large reform projects on which we have worked, and which helped develop and test this model of change, is the Sub-National Governance (SNG) Programme in two provinces in Pakistan that, since 2013, has been supporting reforms in planning, budgeting, and monitoring. Find out more about SNG, and how it acts as a case study for this approach, in our video:

OPM ten-step model for change

1. Establish a strong narrative (theory of change). Set out the objectives of change, explained in clear, relevant and compelling terms. The narrative should continually be reviewed and tested, and may need to evolve over time. It provides the ‘touchstone’ to guide which activities should be supported and how project resources are allocated.

  • What are we trying to achieve? How? With whom?
  • What are the indicators of success?

2. Build a ‘trusted advisor’ relationship with the government. This is necessary to create entry points for engagement with government counterparts. It is helpful if the team can identify early ‘quick wins’, to build trust and demonstrate capability. In Pakistan, for example, our flexibility to respond to policy issues of the day have enabled our team to build effective and long-lasting relationships with government.

  • What immediate reform priorities can we support, consistent with our overall, longer-term objectives?

3. Establish reform teams within government. Reform cannot be delivered by people outside government. In most cases, it is best to establish and support reform sub-teams within government (Reform Working Groups) to own and manage each stage of the process. The appointment of a new Minister, Secretary or head of department may provide a window of opportunity.

  • Who are the potential reform champions and how can we support ownership?

4. Take time to understand the problem and context. There are no blueprint solutions — what has worked elsewhere may not be the answer, or may need significant adaption. Effective change tends to arise from bespoke solutions that reflect the local context and political economy.

  • What has worked and is working well in this context? What are the conditions that make this work?
  • How can we find out more about the drivers of change? Are these likely to change over time?

5. Collect evidence. Evidence is required to understand the nature of a problem and the potential impact of change. Ultimately, reform is influenced by a combination of politics, judgement, opportunity, and analysis — all supported by evidence.

  • How can we gather the required range of evidence?
  • Does the evidence support the problem analysis, and the overall reform narrative?

6. Design context-sensitive solutions. Before implementation starts, review proposed solutions, considering possible resource constraints, knowledge, relevant relationships and political room for manoeuvre, including opportunities to take a more radical stance. Also assess the level of commitment to the change: nothing helps build commitment to change more than being involved in shaping the new direction, and building consensus around a shared solution should enable effective implementation.

  • What are the possible reform scenarios?
  • Is there political support for change? If not, how can it be expanded?

7. Adopt an adaptive approach to implementation. The early stages of implementation require careful support: adopt an ‘iterative and adaptive’ approach, responding quickly to changing circumstances and unforeseen issues. Look for windows of opportunity and move quickly where these emerge, but be willing to halt activities that are not progressing. To be exploratory and innovative, we also need to accept that some solutions will fail.

  • Is adaptability embedded in the design of the programme?
  • What mechanisms are available for fast recovery after a failure, allowing for resource-efficient innovation?

8. Use monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) systems regularly.Take time to reflect on learning as a basis for future interventions, and ensure that MEL findings are shared amongst stakeholders. Where a scale-up is proposed, it is important to secure strong political engagement.

  • What have we learned? What should we do differently in future?
  • How often are reflection points embedded in the design of the programme? Who is involved in these?

9. Build capability to ensure sustainability. Gradual implementation of a reform allows adaptation, which is crucial in making change happen. We also need to ensure that change is embedded within government attitudes and behaviours, and that new ways of doing business persist after support is withdrawn. Gradually withdrawing the level of support provided gives opportunities for government staff to independently continue new practices themselves.

  • What training, coaching and guidance material can be provided?

10. Build interdependencies to ensure irreversibility. Sustainable reform can be strengthened by building interdependencies between reform activities, in such a way that it becomes difficult to reverse change. For example, the adoption of output-based budgeting — looking at what the money will achieve rather than itemising the things it will buy — should be reinforced by building an infrastructure of planning and monitoring focused on service delivery outcomes.

  • Which interdependencies are practical and useful for ongoing governance?

Our work in practice

This model of change has helped structure OPM’s approach to various large reform projects across Africa and Asia. In Nigeria, we continue to manage the second phase of our Facility for Oil Sector Transparency and Reform programme (FOSTER), which has supported the establishment of a specialist oil and gas unit within central government, while in the Occupied Palestine Territories we have helped strengthen financial management and more effective fiscal planning.

Key takeaways:

  • Challenge accepted orthodoxies. Many civil service systems and processes persist because nobody questions them, and they can become a barrier to change. It is important to find ways to enable those within the system to challenge conventions.
  • Focus on attitudes and behaviour. Leadership has a crucial role in making change happen, by influencing people’s attitudes and ensuring their commitment and support.
  • Think about the future. Make sure change is managed in such a way that a government can — and wants to — independently sustain new measures.

Explore the rest of our Practitioner Insights series

Practitioner Insights: building government capacity from within

Practitioner Insights: a little listening goes a long way

Practitioner Insights: political economy analysis for climate change

Practitioner Insights: capacity development for better results

Practitioner Insights: parliament to government

Practitioner Insights: lessons from a public expenditure review in India

Practitioner Insights: people-centred theories of change

Practitioner Insights: using behavioural insights to design more impactful programmes