Choosing a handful of priorities in government is one of the hardest things political leaders have to do, but it is also one of the most important. There are reasons why politicians try to duck these kinds of decisions: prioritisation creates winners and losers and, handled badly, risks alienating important partners in government and beyond. Handled well, it can motivate people across government and society behind shared goals that, once realised, can change millions of lives. But how do you handle it well?
The continued popularity of delivery units as an approach to mastering the business of government is a sure sign that getting things done – whether it’s building schools or hospitals or re-imagining the national grid – remains one of the trickiest tasks facing leaders across the world. We at the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) have written elsewhere about how delivery units are often helpful but not always sufficient to ensure progress. But no matter whether government uses a delivery unit or another approach to drive implementation from the centre of government, setting priorities is an essential. That’s why it’s the focus of our latest paper in a series we are producing on the ‘art of delivery’.
We’ve pulled together the lessons from our work with ten governments across Africa in the last seven years and have identified three steps to prioritise effectively in government.
The first is getting senior leaders to accept that prioritisation is a pre-requisite for meaningful progress. There’s no off-the-shelf answer to this but we’ve seen that windows of opportunity – like getting government focused on completing a handful of projects leading up to an election – can serve as a useful catalyst. These windows aren’t always predictable. Some governments we work with have responded to drops in tax or aid revenue by embarking on a process of prioritisation that has secured renewed focus on priority projects that have ensured citizens benefit from government efforts even in a time of increased austerity.
Knowing when to prioritise is only a part of the battle: governments need to then choose what the priorities are. It’s here that the solutions inevitably diverge depending on the context in any given country. A look at two examples from AGI’s work shows how important it is to foster home-grown approaches and not to assume that an imported idea will work. In Rwanda the development of a national leadership retreat has led to this becoming a critical forum for government planning and accountability, whereas in Sierra Leone several years ago the President adopted a ‘prioritisation matrix’ that asked ministries to score their own priorities before using this as the basis to select a series of Presidential priorities. The route to arriving at a set of priorities will be different in almost every circumstance but the defining features of a ‘good’ list of priorities are more uniform. In our experience, it will comprise fewer than ten goals, blend technical and political objectives, and be realistic in considering resource constraints, defined in scope and measureable.
It is rarely an easy or quick process to arrive at a small set of cross-government priorities, and often this is the point at which momentum can stall if the priorities are not reinforced in government systems.
We’ve identified four touch points governments can use to get priorities to stick. These are: coordination with other government planning processes such as budgeting; effective use of political leaders’ time; clear communication to government staff; and a commitment to putting the best people to work on the top priorities.
It would be a mistake to suggest that application of these guiding principles of prioritisation will guarantee results on policies or reforms, but by considering them civil servants can give themselves a better chance of success. Despite the universal nature of these challenges, the peculiarities of national politics render one size fits all solutions unlikely – continuing to share what works (and what doesn’t) is likely to remain the best we can do.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.