Interrogating Public Policy and Reform Projects Failure in Our Polity (1)


Abdulwaree Solanke


There has been so much talk about public policy failure or lack of sustainability of development and reform programmes and projects in many developing countries especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. This dilemma of cause needs to be interrogated in some details for us to understand the dynamics of the policy process in these countries and perhaps appreciate the constraints of government-public management in genera;lly in the developing world.

Ideally Government initiatives, policies, projects and programmes are meant to address public issues and problems or mitigate crisis and facilitate development or transformation in public life or general conditions of life of the citizens. Such policies, programmes and projects could be on adoption of a new set of values, achievement of behavioural change, or on reforms in just any sector of the public or national life such as education, health, economic empowerment and corruption prevention. But too soon after the introduction of a policy or commencement of a development programme, in fact with fanfare, we very often witness a return to the status quo or even a worse state; we find the project abandoned, turning to wasted effort or bad investment.

The question then is why would a government embark on a policy or project it is ill-prepared to deliver on? Why would any government invest so much resources on a programme or project only to stop in the midway of implementation? Some reasons that I often find analysts cite for such tragedy of development is lack of political will on the part of the government, public apathy and resistance or imperviousness to change. But Lack of political will could mean anything from insincerity of government in introducing the policy in the first instance, hypocrisy or payment of lip service to the acclaimed intent of the policy, corruption and opportunism of public officials who are supposed to implement the policy, especially the street level bureaucrats, deceit, tokenism and reticence on the part of the government either because some interests would be affected o in the inability of the government to provide the enabling environment and the resources needed to facilitate the desired outcome or impact of such policy and programme.

However, the real challenge even if the policy, programme or initiative is well intentioned and in spite of all the afflictions of government and public officials is actually lack of stakeholders buy in. In trying to interrogate the laxity of government in its pursuit of development agenda and the associated crisis of public confidence in reform programmes, one is regularly confronted with the absence or weakness of certain set of values in the policy process which readily conduces to ill-fate in the delivery or implementation of a government intervention, initiative, policy, programme or project. These values are contained in the notions of Sponsorship, Ownership, Leadership and Stewardship, all associated with the idea and ideals of Stakeholders Engagement which form the kernel of this discourse. These notions will however be illustrated with some questions.

 First, what is the need or basis for a policy or a programme; what issue precipitated it or what problem was it supposed to address? How did we frame the issue to become a problem that needed to be addressed? This of cause is an issue identification process. But who did the government involve in this identification process? Is it an issue of inside government alone? Is it an initiative an all knowing benevolent government that only it thinks, knows and decides what is good for the citizens, not needing their input in the issue or problem being addressed with the policy, programme or initiative? Was the issue properly framed for the common or public understanding? How did the government arrive at the decision to embark on it? What is the level of public engagement in deciding on the policy or project? Who are the sponsors of the initiative policy or programme? Was the project owned by the people or beneficiaries who are to be served by the initiative? Was it even the best option or choice and are their no alternatives? What is the cost or benefit of pursuing that policy or taking that option? How are stakeholders factored in the determination of the maintenance and sustainability of the initiative?

Any keen reader will readily agree that there is a preponderance of the words like government, public, citizens, and stakeholders in my discourse so far which suggests that a framework and inter-relationship must exist between the government and the citizens to drive a policy or support an initiative. That is a relationship of sponsors and owners which builds confidence and loyalty. His presupposes governance and strategic communication. This also connotes accountability because it is only when you are accountable that people will trust what you say and accept what you bring that you can achieve sustainability.

From this premise, we can also deduce or submit that policy flops and reform and development projects fail in the poor countries mostly concentrated in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean because of lack trust or faith between the governments in these regions and the citizens as well as other relevant stakeholders. If we admit that people or citizens will only buy into a government policy or agenda if they understand the intention behind it, if they appreciate that it is in their interest, if they are assured that its benefits outweigh its cost in the long run, if they are carried along from the beginning of the process, then we will find fault in how government relate with the public.


Remarkably, this of cause a strategic communication challenge. But is not just strategic communication, as communication which entails openness, transparency and accountability is contained in the understanding of a broader value or framework which conduces to development that is, GOVERNANCE.

There is a very clear distinction between government and governance for purpose of clarification. While government is a system or institution, governance is a broader term, process, indeed a framework and a relationship in which government is itself one of the actors or participants in the context of DECISION MAKING AND AGREEMENT on how a society or an institution should be ordered or managed. In development parlance, the other actors are the citizens and the third sector which could range from the civil society to the international community. Governance is therefore a process or framework within which these key actors operate to decide and agree on what is of public value or public interest.

Since communication, specifically strategic communication is desirable in the pursuit of achieving a vision, that is in aligning the sponsors and owners, establishing trust in leadership and in the leadership considering themselves as stewards who must be accountable, what it means is that government vision and intention are easily misunderstood and their policies, programmes and projects flop when there is no mutual understanding and common agreement among all the actors in the governance framework. Here lies the bane of Reform Projects in the Developing countries.

Their poor understanding of the notion of sponsorship, ownership, leadership, stewardship and stakeholders’ engagement and lack of appreciation of strategic communication are at the roots of most challenges and crises they contend with.

Coming home to Nigeria, we can cite a few case studies starting from the end of the civil war in 1970 and probe why such well-intended policies, projects, programmes and initiatives failed or are unsustainable.

First is the 3s or the Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Programme for Eastern Nigeria; another on my list is the Shagari Era Operation Feed the Nation while I cannot forget the Heart of Africa Project as well as Nigeria: Good People Great Nation one. Beyond these are the various behavioural change communication programmes in areas of family and health practices, promotion of civility in public conduct and integrity in public service. Most of them were dead on arrival because strategic communication was not well factored at the various stages of the policy process.

In these developing counties, what usually we find is rolling out vulgar musicians for karewas to dance giddily in promotion of a vision or programme that would be observed only in its breach or when public officials sent to implement or enforce them are stoned by the citizens. Fire brigade is never strategic communication. In development management, government must understand that there are diverse interests that could assist or stall the success of a policy or programme, even including those that will implement it. So, the quality of research on the need or the issue is important.

Research itself is a communication process that seeks to gather information about what, when, why, who, how of an issue or problem. Then is the quality of engagement of the stakeholders, which is also a communication factor.

The quality of feedback from the associated monitoring and evaluation which is also a feature of communication in the implementation process for the understanding of the outcome and impact of a policy, which is monitoring and evaluation is very important. When there are flaws in researching and framing a public issue or problem, managing the intended beneficiaries and prospective opponents, and in the monitoring and evaluation procedures of a policy, failures stares.

If a policy or programme is genuinely intended to serve the public good, ten, the beneficiaries must be aware of it and be involved in it while the opponents must be assuaged the cost and consequences must be publicly known so that they can be appropriately compensated and mitigated. Many countries pursuing development agenda have not been sufficiently transparent in these directions.

So, they are misunderstood and tier development programmes often run into stormy waters and dead end despite their loftiness and public benefits, all boiling down to the fact that communication is poor in development management. This is always at a huge cost to the government and citizens of developing countries, including ours. So, we see such quantum of waste and abandoned projects for which governments, past or present are blamed, derided and sneered at.

Therefore, when a new plan or programme to address a public problem or change citizens mind sets and the nation is contemplated, there is so much cynicism or lack of enthusiasm in the land. Ijoba tun de pelu iro (Government with its lies and deceit again) is the usual refrain of many citizens who are supposed to own it, be its advocates or even its sponsors ab initio, because they do not understand the intent of the programme. Hence we ae faced with the scenario of failing policies and floppy reform programmes and projects, commonplace in the developing wold today.

This evidently ae challenges of Governance and Communication, which counties of the developing must be creatively addressing by investing in capacity development of communication professionals in the public sector and more importantly factoring all the elements of good governance in practice and culture of policy making and public sector administration and management.