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Dan Hymowitz

This was a rare opportunity for these exceptionally busy government leaders from countries including Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Ethiopia to swap experience around the craft of their work. Here are four things that stood out to me from the event: 

1. Delivery is about changing the way government works 

Critics say delivery units step on civil servants’ toes and usurp the proper role of government ministries. But what I heard from delivery unit heads in Nairobi was a focus on enabling the rest of government to function better – more orchestra conductor than security guard. “We’re not a replacement,” said of one of these government leaders. “The ministries need to own this.”
 
Ray Shostak, former head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the UK, reflected that delivery teams across the globe often find they need to gradually convince wary ministry colleagues that they’re there to support, not just hold to account. One delivery unit director at the ADEx described initially being perceived as “the police” and only over time winning people over by stepping in as a problem solver.

2. Top down meets bottom up

I thought this group of presidential advisors might focus mainly on the power of the bully pulpit. But there was plenty of talk about how to harness citizen and public pressure to improve government performance. 
 
One delivery leader described handing out disaggregated delivery plans to over one thousand local chiefs so that these traditional leaders could hold government responsible for meeting its commitments in each of their communities. We learned about how 98.1 FM in Sierra Leone hosts a weekly radio program discussing the successes and pitfalls of delivery. The Presidential Delivery Team there pressures ministries to submit their data and progress reports on time – or else their successes won’t make it on air. And we heard about how an innovative school-feeding program in one country was saved by the voices of a group of women who advocated for keeping that nascent but effective program in place.
 
So which is it: top down or bottom up? The verdict at the Africa Delivery Exchange was “both”.

Delegates discuss delivery at the African Development Exchange, Nairobi

Photo credit: Jennifer Huxta

3. Political leaders need to engage – and to empower their delivery unit heads

I visited the new railway that will connect Mombasa to Nairobi and is forecast to spur two percent of extra annual economic growth in Kenya. The railway will open in June, a remarkable 18 months ahead of its original five-year timetable. A big reason for this? President Uhuru Kenyatta’s direct engagement on the project including regularly visiting the construction site.
 
But Presidents can’t do everything themselves. I heard about the importance of political leaders backing their delivery unit heads. President Kenyatta empowered his Delivery Unit to intervene to solve a number of thorny implementation challenges such as whether the railway could pass through a national park. Another ADEx delivery unit head said their boss has repeatedly instructed ministers to take the delivery unit head’s words “as if they’re mine”. Gradually, these ministers have come to accept and even embrace the role of the delivery team.

4. Leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver

At development conferences these days I hear a lot about “out of touch” government elites. So it was striking, in contrast, to hear the government leaders at ADEx describe feeling major pressure from the public to deliver results.
 
One leader pointed out that the Africa’s population youth bulge has a byproduct: millennials are impatient and expect government to get things done quickly. And when you don’t? In this leader’s words, “the next thing you know there’s a trending hashtag on Twitter criticizing you".

I left Nairobi sobered by the elephant-sized challenges resting on the shoulders of these essential government leaders. But also inspired by their determination to catalyze their governments to do better for citizens.

Delegates discuss delivery at the African Development Exchange, Nairobi

Photo credit: Jennifer Huxta

This article was originally published as a blog on the World Bank website. You can read it here.