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The transition and transformational agenda: The need for a performance infrastructure

This article will continue to focus on how to create a transformational agenda using a sectoral approach. In the October 15th article entitled, The Transition and Transformational Agenda, the first steps towards creating such an agenda were highlighted from preparation of a policy paper to announcement of strategic intent, identification of priority sectors for transformation to creation of high level strategic objectives that are attainable. The process should be driven by competent senior policy persons and government’s policy advisors in a collaborative effort through consultations and dialogue.

Once the policy paper is prepared, strategic intent with vision and mission is enunciated and high-level strategic objectives identified, work should begin at the sectoral level that is the transformative sectors identified for intervention.

The transformational agenda emerges from the actions, programs, policies and projects of the transformative sectors that when implemented and systematically evaluated are expected to bring about fundamental changes in the priority sectors.

The priority sectors identified for transformative intervention are aligned to ministries, such as agriculture with the Ministry of Agriculture and education with the Ministry of Education, and this is where the bulk of the work to create the transformative agenda takes place.

The sectorial work should cover cross-cutting thematic areas such as leveraging transformative technologies and collaborative partnerships, and have a clear set of strategic actions with implementation timelines.

These actions could be consolidated in various work streams such as development of impact focus date driven strategies, examination of new approaches to strategic partnerships, creation of a collaborative and results-focused culture in the public service, and alignment of programs, policies and projects with national development plans.

Development of the transformational agenda requires a lot of intense work by competent public servants with relevant skills set and proven experience in policy formulation, sector analysis, planning, project programming and project cycle management.

The question is however, does the public service currently have sufficient capability to undertake such an effort. The consensus is no one, some key Ministries such as Agriculture don’t have a Chief Technical Officer or the full complement of senior technical staff. Others like Education and Health have weak technical capacity not capable of doing the work in the various work streams.

The Ministry of ICT, Information Technology, an important cross- cutting Ministry and sector is only in name with little or no staff, only a Permanent Secretary. In all these ministries, the mid-level management staff is equally depleted.

With a cadre of weak senior management staff, lacking in transformational leadership qualities and capabilities to lead a sector wide effort to create a transformational agenda and a badly depleted team of senior and mid-level technical officers to lead the work streams that will identify the programmes, initiatives and projects to transform the priority sectors.

There is an urgent need to create a performance infrastructure within the public service that will lead the effort to create the transformational agenda.

The strong calls and urgency expressed in previous articles for the transition team to get it right, that is, design a senior management team and create a full complement of senior technical staff were in recognition of the lack of capacity and capabilities within the public service to drive the transformational process and not a witch hunt as some purport it to be.

Some senior members of the transition team who are reportedly peeved with those calls have by their own recent admission acknowledged the serious weakness in the public service.

The call to strengthen the Cabinet Office to enable it to significantly improve its ability to ensure effective development, coordination and implementation of policy should be seen in light of the important role the office is expected to play in coordinating and monitoring development and implementation of the transformational agenda.

The need for two deputy Cabinet Secretaries to lead the important core functions of coordination of policy formulation and implementation; and performance evaluation and monitoring across the public service is seen in context of the intense work streams at the priority sectors level from which the transformational agenda is expected to emerge and the need for a central coordinating mechanism to guide the process.

It is in this context a Council of Economic advisers was proposed to bring varying perspectives to policy dialogue making discussions more nuanced to strengthen the policy formulation process and create more effective policies.

Similarly, when calls were made to design a senior management team with the right capabilities and skills set it was viewed as a witch hunt by many, however the process leading up to creation of the agenda requires transformational leadership and capabilities that are sadly lacking among the current crop of senior managers.

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Many of them, hand-picked by the geezer based on loyalty, presided over the largesse, incompetence and mismanagement that were so prevalent under the defeated regime are unable to lead a sector wide transformational process. If the process towards creation of a transformational agenda is to get going there must be capable leadership in the priority ministries to drive the process.

Another critical area of concern is the dearth of senior and mid-level technical capacity to undertake the work within the various work streams from where the transformative programs and projects will emerge that will comprise the transformational agenda. At present key ministries either don’t have their full complement of technical staff or those that are there are weak and not up to the task.

In order for the work at the sector level to identify and develop programs and projects for the transformational agenda to begin, sufficient capacity, capable and experienced technical staff must be available to do the work.

In other words, the performance infrastructure earlier mentioned would be the institutional changes such as strengthening the Cabinet office and setting up a national Economic Council, making changes to the composition of the senior management team to bring capable persons on board, strengthen technical capacity in priority ministries to create a fit for purpose organisation that would successfully undertake the work required.

Once the vision and mission are fleshed out, overall strategic objectives that are attainable are identified, priority sectors agreed to and strategic intent announced, work must now begin at the sector level within the various work streams to put together the agenda.

However, creation of the transformational agenda is being challenged by weak capacity and lack of capabilities in key ministries. This is evident with the initial step taken by a capable Permanent Secretary Aaron Francois, who was himself maligned and sidelined by the geezer and had to leave his homeland for North America, is now back at the helm, to invite Dr Roxanne Brizan-St. Martin to speak to the senior management staff of the Ministry of Agriculture on the subject of transformational development.

Although it was a very good move, the effort is being hampered because that Ministry is all but a shell with depleted technical capacity and weak mid-level management staff. The objective to expose key staff to transformational concepts and thinking would not have been fully met since key senior technical positions remain vacant.

This was my concern all along with the transition team. Although navigating the resistance at the Public Service Commission (PSC) and concerns of labour are proving problematic, greater effort should have been made to return some capable senior public servants currently sidelined with nothing to do to key ministries to commence the process that would lead to creation of the transformational agenda.

What Aaron Francois started in agriculture could have been done in health, education, and information technology as well. One understands the need to be cautious in order to avoid legal issues, however those capable senior public servants sidelined by the defeated government who by the new government own admission are illegal should have been brought back into the fold and competent mid-level officers promoted to vacant technical positions to get the transformational process started.

Even if transformative initiatives are announced in the upcoming budget they would most likely be at the conceptual “idea” stage and not fully prepared for implementation.

Since the government campaigned heavily on the transformation agenda and the Prime Minister spoke to it in his first speech at the UN General Assembly, more effort should have been made to move the process along by taking creative steps to begin creation of a “fit for purpose” performance infrastructure that would drive the transformational effort.

To pursue a transformational agenda in the face of strong economic headwinds, and to maintain recurrent programs and projects of the previous government is a herculean task and this is why more effort should be made to set up and commence the transformative process as soon as possible.

The establishment of a performance infrastructure is critical to the process. However one gets the sense that was not among the priority of the transition team which might be troublesome for the new government in going forward.

Special Correspondent