The Lab process is a highly participatory method that involves stakeholders from both private and public sectors who dedicate 6-8 weeks for an intensive retreat.
Imagine a government that uses a highly innovative process spanning several weeks to figure out how to overcome its tough development challenges and then starts to swiftly deliver on its promised policies and programs. It has been tried in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Tanzania and South Africa. Will it work in Nepal?
Nepal’s proposed vision to become a middle-income country by the year 2030 will depend on how well it innovates, prioritizes and implements its policies and programs; and how effectively it delivers development outcomes. Goals that balance ambition with realism and setting of evidence-driven policy and program priorities are the necessary first steps for achieving development outcomes. However, there is increasing recognition and agreement that these are not sufficient. The critical focus will need to be on the ‘how’ of implementing these priority policies and programs and delivering outcomes.
Challenges surrounding effective implementation have been studied extensively and highlighted by researchers and policymakers alike. These include, among others, low involvement of key stakeholders at the grassroots level, poor incentives and accountability among civil servants and implementers, weak quality assurance, and weak monitoring and course-correction mechanisms. However, there are few ready-made solutions that can help to comprehensively improve implementation and outcomes.
Most efforts have tended to be piece-meal, usually including packages of training, monitoring, and incentives. Proactive governments in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere facing similar challenges have started to carefully review options to address multi-faceted implementation challenges to deliver bigger and faster results for their citizens. One effective strategy that is beginning to show great promise is the use of a ‘Lab process’ and the setting up of Delivery Units.
Building on the successes in the UK during Tony Blair’s reign and subsequently in Malaysia, the Tanzanian government, for example, conducted the Lab process in 2012/13 for its seven priority sectors. The objective of what was termed ‘Big Results Now’ (BRN) program was to swiftly produce results in the identified priority sectors by focusing on improving delivery. Similarly, South Africa has also conducted the Lab process for their national flagship ‘Operation Phakisa’ program in several of its priority sectors. Several US states and large companies have also been using this process to improve outcomes.
The Lab process is a highly participatory method that involves various stakeholders (between 30-50 individuals) from the private sector, civil society, academia, government (policymakers and junior civil servants) who dedicate a period of 6-8 weeks in an intensive retreat using a structured process. The purpose is to review, identify, and agree on realistic goals, priority policies and programs, incentives, enablers, and political economy factors within a system that support or hinder innovation and implementation. Understanding these aspects is critical for designing effective implementation plans and ensuring program success, but in routine programs, they are rarely systematically reviewed and addressed.
The detailed action plans and operational procedures arising from the Labs are monitored through a highly structured process driven by a central Delivery Unit. In fact, the successes in delivery after the Lab process depends on the strength of the monitoring and the political support from responsible authorities, preferably starting at the level of directors and secretaries of the selected ministries and ending with the head of the government. In the case of Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete and his ministers took direct responsibility for the implementation of the Big Results Now action plan, real-time status of which was available for them on their Ipads.
The ‘Lab’ processes have been very effective in increasing the pace of delivery. In Malaysia, where the program is called ‘Big Fast Results’ (BFR), it met most targets and exceeded expectations in several areas. The government has now proceeded to fully integrate the BFR into all government operations with even higher targets set for 2050 goals. In Tanzania, where several sectors have tried the method, results have also been positive. For example, in the education sector, reading scores of second graders and test scores of tenth graders improved and the three Development Partners (World Bank, DFID, and SIDA) that are actively engaged in supporting the program have just approved additional financing worth over $100 million given these early successes.
Show me the results
The stars are better aligned for Nepal today than they were even five years ago. First, we have just finished traversing through a tumultuous political landscape and delivered the new constitution. The soon-to-be elected and future governments will increasingly be held accountable for performance and results—by the citizens, the private sector, and the development partners.
Second, there is a global trend towards funding agreed on outcomes and results. For example, the share of World Bank’s results-based financing (through its relatively new instrument called the Program for Results) is fast increasing. Numerous other bilateral and multilateral institutions are also starting to implement results-focused instruments. The logic of these instruments is simple: we will pay you if you show us the results. This shift in funding approach aligns well with the growing global ethos that development funding, like any other funding, must deliver value for money.
Third, there is clear recognition in Nepal (as in many other similarly situated countries) that failures in delivery of outcomes are related less to inadequate policy analysis or lack of funding, but rather to failures in implementation. This was glaringly evident when a clearly defined reconstruction program, which was committed funding of over US $4 billion, failed to produce quick outcomes for the millions affected by the devastating earthquake. Implementation challenges will become even more complex with the rollout of the decentralization framework.
Vision 2030 offers an excellent opportunity to conduct a large-scale Lab process to build consensus on the priorities and prepare a comprehensive roadmap for implementation. The Lab process questions and proposes a solution for what has remained a perennial weakness in the thought processes/assumptions of decision-makers—that their choice of policies and programs derived after extensive deliberations will somehow (miraculously) be accepted by all the implementers as ‘command’ and will deliver as expected. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, to assume that a policy decision will automatically yield a specific outcome is like assuming a car will drive itself to a destination just because we have started ignition.
Development partners might wish to jointly consider this process as a way to jumpstart lagging disbursements, weak outcomes and for value for their money. If the Lab process is followed and clear outcomes identified, it will provide a clear case for funding selected programs based on results. In Tanzania, several development partners did just that. It helps for the partners to unify behind clear objectives and the hold the government responsible for results, which can be used to disburse additional aid.
Vision 2030 is an important first step. Delivering results for the people of Nepal will be challenging unless there is careful attention to implementation and delivery.
The author is Founder-Director of the Center for Human Development and Innovation, at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies