Fighting windmills: what’s wrong with the government’s ‘action programs’

The Government’s Action Program has attracted unprecedented public attention. However, there were many such documents (too many to remember them all). As well as the results. What is the problem?

Uncertainty about the future is increasing with each passing day. There are so many social problems that it is impossible to work on all of them simultaneously.

At the same time, the public is formulating more and more democratic demands to the government while taking an increasingly active position on participation in policy-making processes. All these aspects are compounded by a critical lack of resources, without rational planning and allocation of which it is impossible to maintain stability and survive.

This is the reason why our state’s strategic planning ability has been included in the top agenda items for the first time since Ukraine’s independence. The Government’s Action Program has attracted unprecedented public attention.

In fact, the Action Program is a contract between the people of Ukraine, on whose behalf the parliament acts, and the government declaring what the government promises to do during its term.

The preparation of such a document is not the obligation of politicians, such as the prime minister and ministers. Their role is to make a choice: first, to choose those problems that should be solved on a first-priority basis, and later to choose the best solution among available options.

The implementation of the political choice of the head and members of the government in serious strategic documents is the obligation of government services.

That is why the government has a large and extensive system of ministries and other agencies that should serve as the centers of analytical work to study problems, propose solutions, ensure the implementation of changes, their financing, communications, and more.

Is this system working properly in Ukraine and can the attempts it makes be considered strategic planning?

Distorted approaches

Strategic approaches in public administration have long been integrated into the practice of developed countries and have proven their positive impact on the success of their development.

Many documents, which are considered strategic, first of all, due to their name, have been produced in Ukraine as well. These are programs, strategies, national plans, concepts, and others, but most of them are not strategic.

These involve some of the key differences between our somewhat distorted approaches and the world’s best practices. First, in democratic regimes, strategic planning is impossible without focusing on real problems and the needs of social groups.

When a problem is replaced by abstract shortcomings of the system such as “imperfect legislation”, “inefficient procedure”, etc. and an anonymous average citizen (often written as “citizens”, “society”, “Ukrainians”) is defined as a problem holder in the best-case scenario, the strategy formulation loses all sense because a fight with windmills begins.

Ask a passer-by whether they are concerned about the “inefficiency of the public investment cost management system”. The answer is obvious.

At present, there is a very specific problem (for example, the lack of access to cheap resources) among the citizens who would like to open or develop their business, and their number can be identified with approximate accuracy. This should be addressed and solved.

Successful democratic states have long understood that there were real people with their grievances out there. When many people are united by a common problem, which is acute, threatening, and cannot be solved on their own, the government should intervene. There is no need to invent problems that no one but the bureaucrats themselves can understand.

To be an effective manager, it is necessary to know clients very well and deeply understand the real situation that needs to be addressed.

It makes no difference whether you write doorstoppers on how you are going to “improve the quality and efficiency of the mechanism…” or not. Until there is a social group that really suffers from the problem, you will make unnecessary steps that no one sees and appreciates.

Secondly, the prioritization of problems is important in both strategic planning and public administration in general.

There are always many slogans and promises during election campaigns. It is normal when politicians explore a full range of social problems and suggest solutions while competing for the attention and commitments of voters.

However, there is a practice in Ukraine when the executive authority produces the same array of promises, and this is unacceptable. No government can work with all the problems in society at the same time. There are always a few priority items on the agenda.

In terms of several years of planning, there can be two or three times more such problems. But it is definitely not about thousands of pages containing even more planned activities and tasks. This is nothing more than a declaration that cannot be implemented even under ordinary conditions, not to mention a crisis.

We should know how objectively compare problems and choose those that require urgent solutions. It is impossible to be good for everyone.

There will always be someone in a better position and someone in a worse position; some people will be more satisfied, while others are less satisfied. The role and value of the government are not to be popular, but to be a fair arbiter capable to balance the interests of different social groups and avoid crises.

This cannot be achieved without making choices and without compromising.

Third, strategic planning should be closely related to budgetary and legislative processes.

Simply put, there is never enough money and time, and the current legislation imposes restrictions. It is unacceptable to plan actions that will not be implemented in the future due to a lack of resources or other constraints. The government should take an unbiased look at what it can afford and what it cannot.

When the budget is prepared for one year and the strategies are developed for five years, this at least questionable and suspicious.

Our governments have been creatively fantasizing without real calculations and justifications for too long. Of course, this cannot be changed in a moment.

These days, the mechanism of medium-term budget planning for three years is being implemented, and without a doubt, this is a step forward. But for now, our strategic documents still look like some previous agreements confirming intentions that may not happen.

Fourth, effective strategic planning requires coordination and harmonization at different levels. This problem is not so notable as the previous three issues, but it may be underestimated. And this is an underestimation in a very real sense.

Often, we may not even know that our strategic planning documents are inconsistent with each other or do not comply with our international obligations. Inadequate and sometimes missed communication and coordination between authorities, especially when it comes to the interaction of central and local authorities, is the main reason for choosing contradictory courses.

In a state that knows how to manage its development, the authorities work on the basis of synergy, but not competition. This is not about interfering in each other’s work, but about following common values ​​and principles.

Fifth, it is essential to focus on the result, continuous monitoring and evaluation of its achievement progress in strategic planning. It is also a matter of regular revision and adjustment of plans following new challenges and changes in the external environment.

We have difficulties at the stage of formulating the expected changes from the strategic plan implementation. Since the problem is usually defined in theory, the preliminary version of its solution, respectively, is the same.

Instead of SMART indicators that should be measurable and indicate the success of the public policy, they used to use figures on the percentage of implemented measures from the plan when reporting.

There are not enough tools to monitor the effectiveness of the actions that are being implemented. Therefore, progress is not evaluated, and this, in turn, provokes each new government that follows one another too often in our country to start from scratch. This nullifies any revision and adjustment of plans.

We as citizens feel this because of the constant uncertainty about tomorrow, while businesses cannot predict it, and international partners are cautiously waiting for the changes that the new government will bring. Thus, governments lose confidence, state institutions – the ability to be effective, and the situation in the country is increasingly destabilized.

Sixth, adequate development and implementation of any government plan involve the institutionalization of relations between government, business, citizens, and ensuring constant communication.

In a democratic state striving to be successful, governments cannot operate behind closed doors, hiding from dialogue with those affected by their decisions. For a long time, our officials were guided by the rule “I know better what they need”.

It is very difficult to break with such a philosophy, because, first of all, you need to question your position and really want to hear other points of view. But only a modernized approach to stakeholder participation in the planning process can save us from many mistakes and ensure leadership.

What will help

Formation of professional civil service. The preparation of strategic documents requires special analytical skills and abilities, and this is not something just anybody can do.

The disadvantage of our civil service, which limits the ability to produce quality analytical documents, is the excessive legal thinking that keeps civil servants within the limits and does not allow them to see the situation more broadly, analyze and offer.

The value of the civil service is to provide policy-makers with meaningful information, having previously collected and processed it.

Therefore, we cannot do without creating a core of highly qualified and competent civil servants-analysts in each ministry to build continuous and sustainable processes of public policy formation and implementation.

Increasing the level of civil society participation in planning processes. The diversity of public opinion groups is growing. Their activity increases proportionally.

A government that wants to survive and be successful cannot ignore society’s demands for long. Such a government chooses to cooperate.

Changing the rules of the game – the Rules of Procedure of the Cabinet of Ministers. It is a real factory of all those rituals that hinder the transformation of the public administration system and distort the essence of the strategic planning process.

Fortunately, the good news here is that this February, the government adopted a new version of the Rules of Procedure, which will take effect next January and embodies the best governance practices of successful Western democracies.

Obviously, neither the adoption of this document nor even the beginning of its work will lead to the immediate improvement of the situation. Such systemic breakdowns take several years. But the starting point is set and it is very important.

First and foremost, a successful strategic document should be real. It focuses on solving specific problems of social groups with a clearly defined measurable result.

To develop this document, it is necessary to ensure the prioritization, an in-depth analytical approach, taking into account changing external factors and adequate forecasts, as well as providing the tools chosen to solve the problems by using appropriate resources and close cooperation with those whose problem needs to be solved.

The constant monitoring of whether the expected result is achieved and the policy adjustment is of equal importance.

The strategic document should be flexible and dynamic. This is not a declaration of intent, but an adaptation of the government’s actions to today’s world, where the country needs to develop.

While there is no relevant strategy, random actions continue and negatively affect the life of every Ukrainian with constant uncertainty and turbulence. It is a pity that few people pay special attention to the fact that the program is not a matter of immunity for the government, but a matter of survival for the country.

Source: Ekonomichna Pravda