6 Tips to Catapult Public Sector Reforms to the Next Level


Chemonics is implementing public sector reform projects across all regions and in most sectors. Whether it is improving the effectiveness of institutions of accountability in Tanzania or working with the Ministry of Education in Zambia to improve learner performance, we use a participatory approach to engage counterparts charged with providing services of all shapes and sizes to citizens. We apply a systems approach to ensure we are fostering partnerships and delivering targeted assistance to achieve results. One such tool is human and institutional capacity development (HICD), which USAID defines in the HICD Handbook as a “strategic and systemic approach to identifying and addressing performance gaps.”

Our experience has yielded a number of lessons on how to best support and sustain institutional strengthening and reform.

1. Don’t rush through the first cup of tea. Often in our need to get to the heart of the work, we forget that there is a human on the other side of the phone or table. Taking the time to build trust, as well as explaining the purpose of this process, walking through the details of the assessment tool, discussing how the findings will be used, and clarifying what happens next will help build the counterpart’s confidence and buy-in. Ultimately, these stakeholders should own the process.

2. Redundancy isn’t always redundant. Our ministerial counterparts wear many hats, requiring them to travel to their districts or potentially move to other positions at what can sometimes be a rapid pace. This turnover and vacancy can result in halting our program activities as we await the new leadership and gain their commitment. By having directorate and deputy directorate heads and mid-level management around the table, we are able to build institutional knowledge of the process by developing staff as facilitators, and in turn build a cadre of future leaders.

3. Never execute solely based on assumptions. Authentic application of HICD does not pre-determine the root causes or solutions until the assessment has been conducted. Whether we use an assessment tool such as the organizational performance index (OPI) or a sector-focused assessment to identify performance gaps, it is critical that we take the time to co-conduct a thoughtful, evidence-based assessment with counterparts to ensure the information is up to date and valid. The value of an assessment is that it provides a baseline and allows for a periodic snapshot (ideally using the same tool) to determine progress made. Political economy analysis (PEA) can also help to better understand why things are the way that they are as we support and navigate behavior change within institutions.

4. Double-check root causes. Once all the gaps have been identified, it is imperative we conduct a rigorous analysis to determine the root causes. Eager to jump into implementation, we sometimes mistake a symptom for the root cause, and we risk implementing a solution that does not address the actual gap. Upon identifying the root causes (using methods like A3 problem solving, the Ishikawa diagram, or the five whys) and implementing a solution through technical assistance, it is essential to review whether the gap has been addressed. If not, we should implement another solution.

5. Create training that trickles down. Create a training-of-trainers program within the counterpart staff with hands-on coaching on how to conduct an assessment; identify key performance indicators; assign targets; and conduct monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

6. Think about sustainability from the start. Make sure to consider sustainability early. This could involve a creating portal where all knowledge and information is shared; engaging counterpart staff in all areas of the process; encouraging peer-to-peer mentoring; creating job aids and tools to guide new staff; building exposure to these tools in orientations for new counterpart staff; or helping counterparts package and share communications and outreach materials with other institutions and donors about their reform efforts.

HICD is a dynamic approach that can be used to strengthen public sector institutions of all stripes, but it is an art in addition to a science. Using these six tips will help make sure that institutional reform sticks.

Rebecca Brewington is a director in Chemonics’ East and Southern Africa Division and a member of the Democracy and Governance Practice.

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