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Using functional reviews for better policy planning

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Governments around the world depend on a complex web of systems to design and deliver public services, as is evident to anyone who has stepped into a public office. In lower-middle-income countries (and many high-income ones too) it isn’t only citizens trying to access basic services who find themselves lost in bureaucracy; governments themselves often lack clarity on which department handles which task.

To demystify this system, governments and development practitioners are increasingly looking for ways to explain and understand what is happening in the process of public policy planning and delivery. In this piece, we discuss functional reviews as a critical element to understand government structures and processes for enabling better service delivery.

There are several approaches for conducting a functional review. The World Bank has captured some of these in an exhaustive global analysis of 25 functional reviews across 14 countries. Broadly, these include ‘organisational reviews’ to study operational efficiency (ways to reduce operational costs or improve quality of services) or ‘policy reviews’ to study the effectiveness of policies and programs (what works). The United Nations Development Programme developed its own guidance note on undertaking functional reviews. Its key emphasis is on understanding both processes and the political and institutional factors in a particular setting to inform policymaking.

Across all this literature, and from our own experience, we know that it is important for all three levels (people, organisations, and society) to be aligned to the objectives of the ministry or government department which is being analysed, for it to function effectively. Functional reviews need to consider not only the ‘hardware’ aspects of a system such as human resources, technology, finance or data systems, but must also seek to understand and address the informal dynamics or ‘intangible software’. Often it is these socio-cultural values and norms, the informal practices and gender or class dynamics, which determine how a system functions.

Our experience in applying these approaches across different sectors shows that understanding the context in which a system operates is critical not just for determining the outcome of the functional review, but also for the approach taken. In particular, in determining what frame of reference to adopt for conducting the review: Do you look at the legal framework first, or start with the organisational processes? Or do you take an individual lens starting with the competencies and motivations of staff?

Context plays an important role in determining where to start. For example, in some systems, such as healthcare of a low-income South Asian country, an organisational assessment needs to understand the complex socio-cultural dynamics between people, the national-subnational relations, and the core systemic constraints and opportunities within finance, human resources, and the supply chain to drive sustainable reforms in the system.

In another southeast Asian context, we were asked by a country government to conduct a functional review of the education sector. In this case, the government’s priority was decentralisation, and we focused on institutional changes in our assessment to understand the impact of these changes.

Our approach to functional analysis draws upon global and country-specific literature to develop a bespoke methodology built on the country context. Rather than using a standardised template to conduct a functional review, we are focusing on what the problem is, and thus identifying the approach and methodology to address it, building on OPM’s Problem-driven Capacity Assessment framework.

What we have learnt by conducting functional reviews:

  1. Make it a collaborative process: We think functional reviews should be owned by the government department or ministry itself as they are the primary stakeholders driving policy planning and reforms. We involve senior government officials in the concerned ministry or department in designing and conducting the functional review. Of course, this also ensures more access to official documents, file notings, and information on the inner workings of the system.
  2. Clearly define the objectives and scope in a given context: Functional reviews serve multiple purposes and it is important to set out the objective and scope keeping in mind the context in which the ministry or department operates. The scope should consider analysing constraints and opportunities at all three levels – the individual, organisation, and society.
  3. Clearly define outputs: We define the outputs the review would like to achieve before starting with the functional review. These could include producing an organisational task list for each function, process reforms undertaken in that function, and an organisational chart with clearly mapped skill levels and skill types among others.
  4. We follow an adaptive and iterative approach: We are open to course correction at any point during the analysis. Often, government officials point us to relevant stakeholders whom we then include among our interviewees, even if they weren’t in our initial research sample.
  5. We prefer making actionable recommendations: Given OPM’s emphasis on real-life application of policies, our functional analyses deliver practical recommendations that are possible to execute within existing governance constraints.

Image: By MissRuby / Shutterstock