Overcoming Policy Execution Trap as Nigeria’s Development Challenge

The Unending Quest for Reform by Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa

If I am asked to give a succinct and apt summary of the entire challenge faced by the Nigerian
state in terms of her policy architecture and development management, in spite of contestation in
the development literature, I will not hesitate in stating clearly and unambiguously that it is the
challenge of policy implementation; the whole dynamics of getting things done. By elimination,
the implication is that the challenge cannot be located as that of the dearth of development ideas,
insights, models and paradigms. Right from her independence, Nigeria has been inundated with
several ideas, both local and global, about development policy and frameworks. And yet, policy
outcomes keep getting bogged down in the murky waters of political shenanigans. This means that
the new administration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu has its challenge mapped out, in red, for it. There
is no shying away from this postcolonial predicament that had limited and kept limiting Nigeria’s
capacity to honour the terms of her social contract with Nigerians. Hence, the Tinubu government
will soon be inundated with the impatient agitations of Nigerians for a quick and tangible fix that
will address their sufferings. And they are justified since they have not been given any real deal
for the past sixty-three years of sovereign independence. And the new administration is obligated
because that is the reason for seeking office in the first place.

How then can we begin to understand this policy execution challenge? It is simple: how can an
administration in Nigeria transition from governance vision and policy intention to policy
outcomes that elevates and transforms the quality of life of its citizens? Failure to understand and
give critical and political attention to this question lies at the heart of the governance failures of
successive Nigerian administrations. The new Tinubu administration cannot afford such glaring
mistake. And so, a fundamental case must be made out of the question of how policy intentions
get circumscribed in the dynamics of policy execution that occasion policy failures in past

Modern states all across the world are distinguished by the traditional four functions they discharge
as part of their administrative responsibilities—security i.e. securing the sovereign territory against
lawlessness, policy formulation and implementation, governance regulation and service delivery.
The capacity to perform each and all of these functions very well within an integrated framework
in the governance context is what delivers the dividends of democratic governance to the citizens,
and it enhances the state’s competitive and human development rating in global reckoning. With
these functions, we have the metrics to differentiate between high-performing states like China,
India, the United States, Botswana, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirate, Germany,
Rwanda and the Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea), and low- or even
under-performing countries like Nigeria that is still cluelessly stuck within a dysfunctional vicious
cycle within her arrested development.

From the perspective of governance, there must be something these states are getting right in the
connection between leadership, politics, and policy articulation. For instance, there is a trajectory
of relationship that links elite bargains to development bargains. In other words, development is a
function of elite nationalism and the extent to which the political class of a state can commit elite
suicide and gamble on development on behalf of the people they are leading. In Nigeria, low
manifestation of elite nationalism has made it really difficult for the political class to set aside their
personal and egoistic class interests in ways that enable them to clearly and ideologically discern
and navigate the deadly developmental landmines strewn all over our governance landscape by the
neoliberal implication of ideological apparatuses and frameworks to which Nigeria is beholden.
And here, the factor of development gamble of the Asian Tigers’ elites comes into bold relief.

From within the ideological ambit of the developmental state, the leadership of the Asian Tigers
were able to define a policy space that consciously and critically weighed the benefits and
shortfalls of external influences, especially the type that came from the World Bank, IMF and the
other cohorts of the neoliberal policy dynamics. Their developmental circumspection paid off!
Since we cannot argue that Nigeria has been stumped by the lack of vision documents,
development plans and blueprints, or even policy expertise, the locus of the new administration’s
focus must be directed at the possibility of mustering the political will to undermine the mystified
Nigerian Factor, and face the global neoliberal consensus in order to begin the crafting of an
enabling policy architecture to drive development. And to achieve this translates to creating the
delicate balance between ‘doing the right things’ (a function of decision making quotient) and
‘doing it right’(project and change management effectiveness), and overcoming the various
political, cultural, structural and systemic constraints that trapped past well-meaning policies and
intentions of Nigerian leaders in the dynamics of implementation.

There is first the conspiracy of elitist interest that ensures there is a poor resource allocation that
focuses on elite bargain than development calculations and taking care of the national interest.
Other constraints follow: (a) the disconnect between policy design and implementation due to
weak implementation planning, risk assessment and incompetent change management strategies;
(b) unstable and poorly managed macroeconomic policies; (c) policy and project discontinuity; (d)
public service low capability readiness; (e) political interference; and finally (f) deep-seated
political and bureaucratic corruption. In essence, development has failed not because Nigeria lacks
the blueprint or paradigms to make it happen, but due to the dynamics of the politics that the
political elite plays with Nigeria’s development potentials.

Let me outline what we can regard as the “politics of policy implementation” that Nigeria has
played for many years, a politics the new administration must take into serious consideration if it
does not want to fall into the category of failed administration right before it commences. This
politics throws Nigeria’s development and policy non-performance right into the frame of the 2005
World Bank review findings about policy and development projects in Africa. According to the
finding, 29% of development projects ever get completed, 45% of on-going projects are rated as
satisfactory, while 26% of such projects invariably get cancelled. Such a review can never backstop
a solid development project of a developmental state. The politics of policy implementation in
Nigeria is founded on the following assumptions and practices.

One: there is that dangerous presumption, that the new administration must resist, that once
policies and development plan are designed, they are automatically implemented by the public
service. And such a presumption is against the background of a scant investment in implementation analysis and planning, as well as the failure to facilitate the capability review, determine public administration system’s capability readiness, and strengthening of the MDAs as the powerhouse of government administrative functionality. The MDAs, that is, are not working according to any specific theories or praxis of change that can guide the functional integration of blueprints or paradigms. This kind of policy inattention draws attention to the policy contradiction: launching anational development plan and strategy that are not implementation ready in terms of adequate capability review of the MDAs integral to ensuring implementation success.

Two: this presumption is compounded by the uncritical reliance of past governments on policy experts and consulting firms who are tasked with designing high-end policies that are then dumped on MDAs whose capability reviews and implementation readiness have been neglected in the first place. The extroversion of the policy design is then compromised by poor functional integration. The truth is that most of these consulting firms lack the appropriate deep content and solution frameworks that are in tandem with the context of policy dysfunction they are supposed to work with.

Three: governance policy or project are hardly subjected to feasibility test determined in terms of scope and expectation that are captured by their framework of time, cost and risk assessments before they are pushed into implementation. This makes it very difficult to benchmark funding projections for these policies and projects against revenue estimations, as well as facilitating in-built flexibilities that enable the policies and projects to adjust to volatilities and contingencies.

All the issues raised above constitute binding constraint that will undermine any governance
possibilities the new administration require to make a success of democratic governance.
Undermining the binding constraints demands returning to the fundamentals. The first and most
significant is that the new administration needs to interrogate the framework of how government
business is currently being conducted. Governance successes is necessarily a function of how
government business engages the complexities of the policy design and execution processes within
a results-oriented frame. And that entails undermining the structural gaps between policy
objectives, development strategies and policy outcomes. This demands second, setting the public
service on a performance curve with the institution of a performance management system. This
means that the public service must, for example, unfailingly now deploy KPI-based metrics to
replace the cumbersome annual performance evaluation report (APER). And at the backend, it
becomes imperative to have a monitoring and evaluation system supported by databases that
enable staff and program continuous assessment, human resource development rooted in iterative
performance gap identification, supervisors-staff dialogue and multisource feedback mechanisms
for overall national development policy tracking and reporting.

The governance mantra must be on getting the balance between doing the right things and doing
it right. And this cannot be achieved through the wanton multiplication or even duplication of
governance plans, programs and blueprints. What is needed is sequencing the blueprints into a
coherent and feasible implementation programme, with the right amount of political will behind
it. This gives the success of democratic governance a 95% chance of succeeding. The new
administration needs that fighting chance!

*Tunji Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State.