Public policy in general is conceptual roadmap for government to address specific public concerns and/or deliver specific constitutional mandates and it provides framework for ensuring legal, institutional, procedural, and resources (both human and financial) required to deliver the commitments of the particular public policy. Effectiveness of Nepal’s public polices has to be examined within this definitional framework.
For the past two years, I am heavily engaged in reviewing public polices, comparing different existing public polices and reviewing several new draft polices prepared by different ministries and government agencies. This process helped to understand how they are formulated, why they are formulated in that particular way, how effective they are implemented and why they fail. In this article I am reflecting on why public polices often fail in Nepal.
Reasons of public policies’ failure
I found the following major reasons of ineffectiveness or even failure of public polices in Nepal:
- Weakness in the policy formulation process: Lack of proper need assessment and weak prioritization, no sincere risk and opportunities assessment, not even proper definition of policy, no proper consultation with key stakeholders to collect their concerns and voices resulting in lack of ownership, very top-down process leading to few formal activities to meet the legal/procedural requirement, time pressure for quick delivery of policy, etc. Right policy formulation process often leads to higher possibility for effective implementation and vice versa. Hence, one of the major reasons of failure of public policy is lack of adopting right process.
- Inconsistencies in content of policy formulation: Once there is lack of proper need identification, analysis and prioritization, appropriate risk assessment, lack of conceptual clarity in absence of definition, there is always possibility of inconsistencies and flaws/vagueness in the content. Because of lack of conceptual clarity, the whole document as well as individual policy statement is called policy. Many times the logical sequencing between a) policy statement, b) strategies and c) implementing guidelines are weak or missing, very vague statements with similar meaning are presented in policy statements, strategies and implementing guidelines.
- Institutional mechanism: In most of the polices, there is no clear responsibilities of responsible institutions outlined and agreed, thereby creating confusion and lack of ownership in implementation. Most of the polices require engagement of several inter-ministerial institutions. Policies brought by one ministry with the responsibilities of implementation on another ministry is one of the main reasons for dysfunction.
- Legal provisions: Several policy provisions demand legal back up for successful implementation. But most of the polices are prepared without proper assessment of legal situation (does any existing law inhibit implementation, is new law required to implement the policy etc.). Hence, once policy is formulated, many existing laws prohibit (e.g., forest law or park and people law) implementation or new laws are required. This situation must be assessed while making policy and clear legal provisions required to implement specific policy must be outlined in the policy. Further, unlike laws, there is no provision of punishment to concerned officials if he or she fails to implement particular policy resulting in impunity for lack of implementation.
- Coordination: Lack of inter-ministerial and inter-agency coordination is another big barrier to implementing policy effectively, as scope of most of the policies (e.g., agriculture policy, urban development policy, water, sanitation and hygiene policy, etc.) goes beyond the remit of single ministry (eg, agriculture, irrigation, industries, trade and supply, finance, foreign affairs, home affairs ministries are related with agriculture policy). Hence, if proper consultation with concerned ministers at the beginning of policy formulation is not done and clear commitment not ensured, policy will not work.
- Resources provisions: Many policies at the time of formulation do not assess the tentative financial and human resources requirements. Without proper projection of resources required for implementing the policy, possibility of its failure is high.
- Time required for public policy formulation: Often Nepal’s public policies are formulated in a very short time (few weeks to hardly a few months) leaving aside important public consultation process because of pressure from minsters leading ultimately to lack of public ownership and failure. Depending on the gravity of topic, time span for a policy formulation process requires nine months and up to 10 years (for policies’ that are directly related with a large number of people, such as agriculture/health and sanitation, etc.).
- Monitoring and evaluation: Most of the policies mention about monitoring and evaluation but there are no indicators (what to monitor/evaluate), no time frame (when to do), and assigning of responsibility. So, it remains simply a jargon statement.
- Supplementary elaborations and documents: Complex polices require supplementary documents (strategies, guidelines, procedures etc.) that are not indicated in the policies but affect policy implementation.
Existing practice of policy formulation must be changed if we want to see public policy implemented. In this context, Policy Research Institute (PRI) has developed two guidelines related to public polices: one related to formulation of public polices and another related to reviewing public policies, to assist government ministries. Very brief synopsis of public policy formulation cycle is presented below:
Public Policy Formulation to follow the ‘Public Policy Formation Cycle’ that starts with
- identification and analysis of policy issues,
- prioritization of policy issues,
- preliminary draft as per the standard format (developed by Policy Research Institute),
- call for the public to give feedback and public dialogue over the preliminary draft,
- revision of the preliminary draft based on the public feedback,
- review of the revised draft by team of experts and adaptation of draft,
- circulation at the public level for their comments and feedback on the draft (sending to all key stakeholders and requesting for their feedback and organization of a series of feedback meetings with stakeholders),
- revision of the draft policy for finalization,
- submission of the draft to cabinet committee for approval,
- policy implementation,
- policy evaluation (after 5 years of implementation) and decision of continuity, revision or need for new policy.
Completion of this process generally requires about nine months and in case of policies dealing with the concerns of large population such as health policy, agriculture policy, drinking water and sanitation policies and education policies years of continuous consultation and public debate is required. Now Nepal needs to change the present practice of policy formulation in terms of process, content, expected outcomes.
(The author is currently serving as executive chairperson of the Policy Research Institute, a government think tank)