Need for better planning and monitoring of projects

The problems arising with the new Verdun bypass road has shown several weaknesses and failures during the implementation of the project. This is but one issue among others that have been known to the public for quite some time, for example the Neotown and Jinfei projects that remained stagnant after much fanfare about them.

If anything, they surely illustrate that there is a failure at system level, both upstream (planning/development) and downstream (implementation/monitoring). From what is transpiring, it seems that there was a disconnect between policy makers and executors, with information such as engineering inputs not reaching where they should have.

The problem is where to begin addressing the issue to prevent such mishaps in future – mishaps which are very costly to the taxpayers. A starting point is perhaps what several senior economists and analysts have observed in the past years: that accounting and financial roles and planning functions appear to have been conflated at the Ministry of Finance after dismantling the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. The merger at the Ministry of Finance mixed up strategic planning and policy formulation, evaluation and analysis with the operational aspects of deliverables.

A current of thought is that, if it is not intended to restore the former ministry, then we must set up an independent, statutory planning/development/monitoring body that would report directly to the Prime Minister, and be given all the means to function at the highest level of excellence. There are more than enough qualified and competent people in this country to staff and run such an institution, but of course nothing prevents us from headhunting internationally if the need is felt.

Further, we must here be careful in making a distinction between reporting to the PMO and being under the PMO: the latter could be perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be prone to inappropriate influence. For this reason it is necessary to have the required body functioning autonomously but reporting to the PMO only so as to fast-track and facilitate execution. In a properly functioning and mature democracy, this situation may not have been necessary – but we still have some way to go before we reach there, unfortunately.

It is a fact that in most ministries the higher officials are so bogged down with operational matters that they hardly have any time left to do policy formulation and strategic planning. Combine this with this nasty tendency to foist foreign advisers on them at short notice and without proper planning and you have the inevitable knee-jerk pattern of working that results and then becomes a permanently temporary feature.

Several experts are only too happy to travel to Mauritius, well known tourist destination, having inadequate knowledge of the local context and realities. Add to this that they cannot possibly fathom the other undercurrents and undertones that mar the good functioning of the country, through manipulations and interferences of all kinds, from the political to the private interest lobbies, and you will understand that often expert advice is at variance with what is genuinely feasible with our limitations of resources.

There is no mechanism in this country for structured public policy analysis and formulation and for development planning. This is an opportunity therefore to consider the setting up of an Institute of Public Policy and Development Planning. It might seem plain horse sense to appreciate that if there is no planning of the country’s development there will be no planned development – it will then take place haphazardly, and each project will be a stand-alone with respect to others and without any consideration whatsoever of the overall impacts of the several projects going on, their implications for the country’s resources – physical, geographical, economic, financial etc – and the impact on the lives and living conditions of its population.

In the Verdun bypass problems, we have living evidence of the consequences of this absence of integrated development. As concerned citizens, we feel it is our duty to make constructive suggestions in the national interest, and what precedes purports to be an example in line with this spirit.

Because it is clear that there are constraints in the models that we have been adhering to for the past few years, and it is only if thinking out of the box is accepted and attention paid to its outputs that things will have a chance to turn around as this depends on untying a number of knots in the process-procedure chain. This can only happen with a change of mindset driven from the apex leadership which effectively means, in this country, the Prime Minister since decision making is so centralized. It therefore requires no less than the Prime Minister himself to push for the desired change in the way we run things down here. Otherwise there is not a flipping chance of matters getting better in the time line that they need to so if we want to catch up with e.g. Singapore.

There are so many competing local, regional and global forces and interests that it is no longer possible for any single person or ministry to understand all the complexities and to make sense of them before taking the crucial decisions for the country. Developed and many developing countries have Departments or Schools of Public Policy based in universities, or similar think-tanks which carry out research and extensive studies that provide the data inputs necessary for a comprehensive planning process. And economists are only one of the categories of experts who carry out this important work on behalf of the country. Equally important are professionals drawn from such fields as sociology, political economy, program evaluation, policy analysis, and public management. There are also development experts, land use and environmental specialists and, it goes without saying, professionals from other fields who are regularly consulted or co-opted so as to strengthen the team and enrich the thinking process.

Given that competing interest groups are constantly trying to influence policy makers in their favour, and that individuals and groups often attempt to shape public policy through education, advocacy or mobilization of such interest groups, it would certainly be in the public interest and highly commendable for the government to show transparency by directing such pressures towards an independent body. Its job would be to analyse any proposal in all its dimensions, interacting with whatever government department it deems is appropriate, have inputs from the private sector too if necessary, prioritize, factor in funding options, and present scenarios to the authorities for their final decision in full knowledge of what the decision entails.

The same body could include a monitoring arm that would be above all ministries, and would have to have the necessary authority to seek out all information required in respect of any project of national importance.

And who knows that such a high-level, robust entity of excellence – Institute of Public Policy and Development Planning – may not also eventually serve the region? We do really need to think out of the box.

 

* Published in print edition on 13 February  2015

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