Keeping major government initiatives on track

Close attention to project management discipline and systems can help governments to manage the challenges of delivering national development plans, writes Sami Zaki of Strategy&

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Keeping major government initiatives on track Project management can help control and measure progress towards national goals, says Zaki.
By  Sami Zaki Published  January 2, 2018

Public-sector organisations in the Middle East have large ambitions, and they are currently spending hundreds of billions of dollars on programs to achieve those goals.

These programs, including Saudi Vision 2030, Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Qatar National Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, and Egypt Vision 2030, are complex initiatives aimed at transforming national economies, improving infrastructure, or providing better public services such as healthcare or education. Yet they all possess one common element: they require better oversight and monitoring by governments to ensure that they hit their targets, in terms of overall objectives and impact, schedules and budgets.

Governments in more advanced economies already have a discipline in place to improve their oversight of large projects: performance management. This discipline requires translating big-picture goals into specific projects and initiatives, and then using metrics so that government bodies at all levels ensure the programs remain on track. Performance management is widely used in Australia, Canada, and the US. Although most Middle East countries have basic performance management efforts in place, their processes are rudimentary. Middle East governments will need to rethink their approach if they are to get the maximum benefit from this approach.

Such oversight is more important than ever in the Middle East, given the region’s current economic situation. Low oil prices means many countries are running fiscal deficits, thus requiring that governments spend smartly. In addition, many government agencies in the Middle East are plagued by bureaucracy, and the region scores poorly compared to other countries regarding the ease of doing business — a key indicator of the quality of government services.

Applying performance management entails three main steps. The first is to design the performance management system. Governments need to determine the governance of the program and where the initiative’s leadership will sit within the government’s overall organisation — for example, in the executive office, the cabinet, or a specific ministry.

Those housed in the executive office typically benefit from close ties to the center of power. Governments also need to determine the overall mandate for the system — in general, governments that are new to the performance management discipline should start with a smaller mandate — along with key performance indicators (KPIs) that are linked to clear program outcomes. Systems that are not based on outcomes but some other metric (for example, inputs such as employees or financial capital) tend not to work, particularly for large-scale programs like those underway in the Middle East.

The second is to put the key enablers in place to support the system. These enablers include skilled human capital (particularly strategists who understand how government works); a performance-based culture; IT systems that can automate the tracking and reporting of KPIs; and comprehensive, straightforward processes that ensure the performance management system gets implemented.

The third is to implement and refine the performance management system. Governments should launch the performance management system, with the understanding that it will almost certainly change over time based on changing conditions and lessons learned during the early stages.

The best performance-management systems are designed to be flexible, with the right balance between up-front systematic planning and organic evolution based on real-world experience. For example, governments may need to adjust and improve KPIs, change the senior managers overseeing the system, and revamp IT tools, among other things. Problems and glitches will arise, yet solutions are available.

Governments in the region have committed to large-scale national development programs — essentially making a bold investment to reshape the region’s economic future. These are complex, ambitious programs, which raises the stakes for policymakers, particularly given the current budgetary constraints that many governments face. In this environment, a well-functioning, outcome-based performance management system is one clear and proven means of making sure these programs stay on track.

Sami Zaki is Principal with Strategy& Middle East.

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