Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What's the Use of Development Plans?

Nearly two years ago, I was part of a team that drafted the background paper on governance, justice and human rights for the current Seventh Five Year Plan of the Government of Bangladesh.  Bangladesh still drafts a Soviet/ Indian style Five Year Plan, as led by the Planning Commission of the government.

This experience presented valuable lessons on planning, and especially how to think about the value of a planning exercise.  Ex ante, one would think this planning document is the master plan, directing practically all government initiatives related to development.  This is incorrect, as is the case with most planning documents. This is not to say that the document is useless; instead, it requires a different conception of the function of a planning document.  To explain this, let me present some important contextual realities.

First, I quickly realized that there is a major issue in terms of implementation. I thought that, to provide some context and accountability, I should dedicate a section of the paper to a stocktaking of what had been completed under the Sixth Five Year Plan.  The results were not encouraging.  Of the 72 activities related to governance, justice and human rights that appeared, just 13 had been completely implemented, 38 had been partly completed, and 21 had not even begun to be implemented.    Granted, these topics – governance, justice and human rights – tend to be a difficult and contentious area.  But this is a rather mediocre track record.

Second, I realized that the process for generating the plan does not generate sufficient ownership.  After starting the paper, I learned that the main Five Year Plan is written by an outside think tank for the government, then goes through an extensive review by the government.  This process clearly raises concerns regarding ownership by the ministries involved.  One such concern is first mover advantage: as long as the planned action – planned being the operative word – was not somehow controversial, it was quite possible it would remain in the document.  But if the idea didn’t stem from the responsible ministry, it’s quite possible the action would be tolerated in the plan, but with no intention of following through.  Ideally, a given ministry composes the relevant section of the overall plan, to ensure ownership.  Simply having the ability to edit an outside product is not sufficient to build on genuine intentions. 

That said, we also realized that the plan is not the main driving force behind government action, but it can help to serve as a rationalization for action.  If a well-placed individual in government wants to implement an activity, then its appearance in the Five Year Plan can further justify implementation.  This became the priority in developing our recommendations: identify genuine champions within the ministries, and if their ideas had a reasonable possibility of generating positive results, strongly recommend these actions. 

The experience brings up serious questions about the value of a plan in development organizations in general.  In the technocratic development practitioner’s view, a plan is made to set things in stone, then a budget and implementation indicators are developed, the project is financed, and then executed. However, this becomes ridiculous once one acknowledges two realities.  First, the implementing organization – or the branch that implements - often feels little ownership over the plan.  Such plans are generally developed by an outside consultant at the request of the funding organization, with the funding organization hiring that person and financing the work.  The consultant usually has little contextual knowledge, and few days in which to develop the plan.  Moreover, because the funding cycle takes so long, this exercise may have been completed years before implementation begins; further learning may have emerged, senior staff been replaced, and country conditions transformed.

Second, unless the program is a routine development intervention, everything changes once implementation begins. The plan may be comprehensive with a substantial consultative process, but when things begin, challenges emerge, and the intervention may prove to be ineffective.  

To make matters worse, the financing bureaucracies face difficulties in allowing for flexible implementation plans, at times demanding that the implementing organization stick with it.  In such cases, the implementing organization often pretends to go through the motions, so as not to interrupt the flow of resources; they may do so, even if they realize that the plan will not achieve the targets.  Moreover, the lack of flexibility discourages innovation and the testing of a variety of approaches to see what works. 

All of this is to say that a more realistic planning approach is needed.  We shouldn’t simply scrap plans, though they are sometimes useless.  Instead, a greater focus on process is needed, one that is long-term, inclusive, and on-going, that provides the opportunity for revisions along the way and for learning by doing.  Ideas such as flexible planning and the development of a learning organization (i.e. the Fifth Discipline) should be taken up by both financing and implementing bureaucracies.  I haven’t found a good example in development of flexibility that appears in this article from Harvard Business School, but I’m curious to find one.

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