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The policy execution dilemma

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In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

Alexandra Nastase

How governments go about designing and implementing their own policies – policy execution – is a challenge globally. We know enough about policy evaluations to know when a given intervention has worked in a particular context. But do we know enough about why and how things worked at all? Are we paying enough attention to the underlying governance factors of the successful interventions and failures to say more about sustainability and transferability (even in terms of scaling-up pilots) of change?

Everybody working in the international development space is looking to address similar questions, particularly those of us who work directly with government departments across the world. While every department and situation will require its own context-specific conversations, suggestions, and implementations, we also believe it’s possible and beneficial for an understanding of policy execution to be cumulative and to evolve. Rather than starting from scratch each time, international development practitioners can share their learning – both within their own organisations and externally – to make each process more efficient and effective, and to avoid common pitfalls.

At OPM, our Governance team is taking a first step towards addressing these challenges. We have created the Policy Execution Hub: a space of expertise and an opportunity for reflection and learning to advance more impactful work with governments. Through the hub, we are aiming to link what we know from the science of implementation with what we know from systems theory. We know there is not one solution to the wicked problems we are facing in complex contexts. These problems have various interdependencies that don’t allow for narrow technical approaches.

Essentially, the Policy Execution Hub strives to share knowledge and experience on WHAT, HOW, and WHY things work in enabling public sector change. We are interested in a conversation that goes beyond the ‘good practices’ to discussing failures, the limits of our current approaches, and what we can learn from this.

There are various ways this can be done:

Policy execution-related work

Working holistically across an organisation, with different sectoral teams or directly with external partners where possible, helps to learn more about the governance in public sector change. This enables a public sector governance oriented team to learn from those who have different perspectives on the various nuances of a situation.

Examples from our recent hub-driven work include:

  • In Pakistan (2017), we convened a high-level workshop under the Sub-National Governance programme to share techniques and approaches to improve the effectiveness of publicly-funded service delivery.
  • In India (2017 – present), we are evaluating the delivery unit approach to support in the primary health sector at the provincial level.
  • We have been leading a review of the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice (2018) and provided recommendations.

Practitioner Insights

We believe that international development should be collaborative, and that the best outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable will come with governments, donors, practitioners, and the general public are able to work together towards the same goals. As part of this, we recognise the importance of sharing knowledge and experience within OPM and with – and from – other organisations in the field.

In our Practitioner Insights series, we share with wider audiences what we learn through our technical work. We started writing about supporting a change in Pakistan, building capacity in such a way that we can actually track and measure it, and discussing the importance of soft skills to support policy execution and in other cases facilitate the change process.

Practitioner’s seminars

For similar reasons, in May 2018, we organised a seminar in London that gathered experienced practitioners, academics, and donors, committed to enabling or studying how change happens in difficult contexts. The discussions served to underscore our recognition that solutions to the difficult questions are often beyond one organisation or one approach. Most of us agreed that the answer to the wicked problems of development are solution-agnostic and this has direct consequences on the skills we’re looking to build in our teams and to the programmes definition.

The remaining question, however, is if we are sometimes solutions and problem agnostic, is this far riskier that the more technical approach that is widely implemented now? If not, then why aren’t we doing it more often? And if so, are donors ready to fund a more honest but riskier approach?

If you have been thinking and working on answering some of the questions above, maybe you’d like to be part of future conversations. Get in touch or subscribe to our mailing list. 

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Alexandra Nastase is a public sector governance practitioner and a Master of Public Policy (University of Oxford). She works with Oxford Policy Management as a senior public sector governance Specialist and the lead of the Policy Execution Hub, a centre of excellence on using governance tools and approaches for bringing about lasting positive change in the public sector and beyond.

Previously, she has been working with and for governments in Europe, south Asia, and east Africa to deliver better policy outcomes for their citizens. She advises on how to drive government performance, reduce corruption, and develop state capability. Alexandra also has extensive experience in advising on public sector reform and in managing high-level stakeholders' engagement to develop national development strategies. Prior to joining OPM, she worked with the World Bank on public sector governance and strategy. She also worked with the United Nations, co-founded and managed a think tank in international public affairs, and collaborated with academic institutions and NGOs as a public policy researcher covering southeast Europe.

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