Bridging the policy design and implementation gap: the role of think tanks

25 April 2019

This session at the 6th Africa Think Tank Summit in Nairobi was led by the African OTT-TTI Fellows.

You can listen to the session here.

The idea behind this session builds on the observation that some policies are bound to fail even before the implementation process kicks off because of critical, yet often discounted, design issues. Particularly, there may be challenges that impede the design process such as: data and evidence limitation; a poor understanding of the problem and its causes, leading to inappropriate policy implementation instruments; disconnect between the policy designers and implementers, cultural disconnect between the designers and the intended beneficiaries, group think, among others.[See: Blunders of our governments[/note] Furthermore, the persistence of policy implementation failures in many contexts in Africa can be attributed to four factors: not thinking of implementation during the design stage; overly optimistic expectations; implementation in dispersed governance; inadequate collaborative policymaking; and the vagaries of the political cycle.+

In designing policies, many policymakers have overly optimistic expectations, where time, costs and risks are underestimated and benefits are overestimated. Why is this often the case? The complexity of issues, poor evidence base, misunderstanding of stakeholders, misaligned interests and incentives, and challenges of accountability, can all contribute to the optimism in policy design. Similarly, the policy horizon is important, with long-term policy commitments like the SDGs requiring sustained focus and prioritisation for successful implementation.

There is a coordination problem, especially when policy is centrally designed at the national level but implemented at subnational levels. This poses a challenge for ensuring some degree of consistency in implementation. Similarly, even policy that designed and implemented at the same level of governance can suffer the coordination problem if administrative silos exist.

Politics and the political cycle also contribute to the challenge of persistent policy implementation failure. Specifically, policymakers are more likely to get credit for legislation that is passed than for implementation problems that have been avoided. In this case, the implementation of policies probably tends to be seen as someone else’s problem.

Joseph, Founty and Sulamba at the ACBF 6th Africa Think Tank Summit

Joseph Ishaku – Research Associate Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) and OTT-TTI Fellow

The 6th Africa Think Tank Summit in Nairobi that focuses on tackling implementation challenges for Africa’s sustainable development. As a panellist in a side event organised by OTT-TTI Fellows, I used a case study of CSEA’s participation in tobacco tax reform in Nigeria to highlight some roles that think tanks can play in bridging the policy design-implementation gap in many African contexts. I summarise my contributions during the panel discussions in this short note.

A two-way gap exists between policy design and implementation. On one hand, some policies are bound to fail even before the implementation process kicks off because of critical, yet often discounted, design issues. On the other hand, lessons from policy implementation often do not circle back into design to improve current and future policies. Challenges that result in this misalignment between policy design and implementation are easily identifiable including data and evidence limitation; a poor understanding of the problem and its causes, leading to inappropriate policy implementation instruments; disconnect between the policy designers and implementers, cultural disconnect between the designers and the intended beneficiaries; group think; among others.

Is there a role that think tanks can play to help address the policy design-implementation gap in their contexts? Consider the recent case of tobacco tax reform in Nigeria, which hitherto stalled for many years, despite persistent advocacy from CSOs, due to industry lobbying, poor evidence base for designing policies, uncertainty about the impact of reforms, and alternative policy priorities.

Conditions over the past few years aligned to allow the reforms to sail through. Particularly, the oil price crash in 2014 and the resulting economic recession in Nigeria warranted enhanced domestic revenue mobilisation in the presence of a shrinking fiscal space. This generated some political will for tobacco taxation as a tool to enhance government revenues alongside yielding desired public health benefits. In addition, CSEA during this period commenced research on the economics of tobacco control and put together pioneering contextual evidence on tobacco taxation, with capacity building and funding support from ACBF. This enabled CSEA to join other stakeholders in the policy space under the auspices of the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance as well as policymakers in the ministries of health and finance in a series of technical engagements that led to the adoption of new taxes on tobacco products that took effect from June 2018. CSEA continued to build capacity in this area, attract funding from donors and build reputation among policymakers. These guarantee that research effort is sustained to inform policy implementation.

We can draw lessons from this case. Here are some roles for think tanks to consider as they seek to help close the policy design-implementation gap:

  • Setting the agenda in policy discourse and grounding it in evidence.
  • Keeping the issue on the agenda long enough to inspire action.
  • Helping to problematise the issues to shape a common understanding of the problem among different stakeholders.
  • Helping stakeholders, particularly policy makers, to understand what is happening by modelling possible impacts of the policy, running pilots to show how things can be done, critically assessing implementation capacities, and highlighting other perspectives.
  • Helping defend original policy ideas from being watered down at the end of the process by bringing balance to policy debates with the use of evidence.
  • Monitoring the implementation of policies and feeding back learnings into policy design.

An overarching consideration for think tanks in playing all these different roles to support policy design and implementation is taking responsibility for their policy recommendations. Specifically, think tanks need to understand that policy contribution comes with responsibilities as the policies have real implications on the lives of people. Therefore, consider the trade-offs as well as the unlikely consequences of your policy recommendations.

Furthermore, playing some of the roles suggested may involve changes within think tanks. For instance, dealing with new resource requirements to assist with monitoring of recommended policies as implementation is going on. Many think tanks secure resources for coming up with research recommendations and some communication activities. In this case, embarking on monitoring may require convincing donors to fund this post research and dissemination activity. Therefore, think tanks need to do some internal reflection to see how they may need to adapt to help bridge the policy design-implementation gap. This may include building new capacities and forming new partnerships as seen in the case above.

Founty FALL – Assistante de recherche au Consortium pour la Recherche Economique et Sociale (CRES) and OTT-TTI Fellow

What are the main factors that explain or cause design-implementation gaps? I can share some challenges  based on one of our projects, also related to tobacco use, in this case in Senegal and other ECOWAS countries.

Over the past six years, West Africa has focused its efforts on strong national anti-smoking laws and tobacco tax reform. The program on taxation of tobacco products at CRES in West Africa had as an objective to contribute to the regional harmonisation of taxation of tobacco products to reduce its consumption. The 15 ECOWAS countries as well as all stakeholders active in tobacco control participated in the project through a strategy developed by CRES.  A process of action research resulted in tangible policy changes at the national level and at the regional level: At the regional level, for example, the achievement we have is the adoption of a new directive on taxation of tobacco products by ECOWAS Heads of State in December 2017.   

But when it come to the implementation we are facing to mainly four challenges:

The first one is limited capacity of member countries to implement complex tax reforms, which requires the regional commission to provide them with technical support, particularly on monitoring skill.

The second one  is the lack of analysis of countries’s profiles which should provide information to establish the reference situation of other countries on the prevalence of tobacco products, the legislative framework for tobacco control, the importance of the tobacco industry in the country’s economy and the taxation of tobacco products, among other issues. This evidence should allow advocacy towards ECOWAS member countries for a harmonised review of their tax policies.

Third, is the lack of networking and partnerships between institutions, particularly think thanks, to promote good practices but also to share data and experiences about tobacco taxation issues. CRES has systematically associated West African research institutions with the work it has done under its tobacco program, but only six ECOWAS countries participated to the research process. This has limited the relevance and applicability of the study for all countries.

Finally, a lack of regional capacity for tobacco research in the region which means that not all countries have been able to undertake research on this issue in their own contexts. This limits the evidence we have to make policy decisions that may be applicable across the region. Forming a community of researchers, policymakers and civil society organisations would be the appropriate response to the rise of smoking in countries like those in Africa.

In this context, what can think tanks do?

There are key 3 roles that think tanks can play to reduce the gap in policy design and implementation: helping to design good policies on the basis of strong evidence, develop the capacity of the various partners involved in the process and propose a model of monitoring policy implementation.

But how can think tanks do this effectively? Here I can related to some experiences of think tank support for policies implantation:

A project with the University of Cape Town proposes a consortium between specialists in tobacco taxation in Sub-Saharan Africa. The consortium will consist of CRES and the University of Cape Town’s Economics of Tobacco Control Project (ETCP – South Africa), in partnership with the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD – United Kingdom).

The objective of the project is to empower policy makers to change tobacco taxation policy by providing them with evidence-based analysis of the effect of this change on public health, socioeconomic well-being and government tax revenue. The project will provide evidence-based analyses of tobacco taxation and tobacco use in West Africa by identifying key economic issues for raising or introducing tax reforms. 

A project with  the Africa Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) aims to contribute to a slowdown in the growth of consumption of tobacco products through a strong taxation in West Africa. This objective aims to support the implementation of Directive C / DIR.1 / 12/17 harmonising the excise duty on tobacco products in ECOWAS member states.

CRES, with financial support from the ACBF, will support the establishment of an inventory of the situation of smoking in 6 member countries of Central African States (ECCAS). This objective aims to further enlighten the authorities of the community ofECCAS on the need to improve tobacco control policies to reduce tobacco consumption and preserve the health of populations. The activities planned to achieve this goal are mainly:

  • Provide technical assistance to 4 countries; and
  • Produce a periodic report on the implementation of the directive using a monitoring module where some indicators developed bye CRES in partnership with other actors will help to fellow the implementation process.

As a final reflection, the roles that think tank can play to contribute to reducing policy implementation gaps can have implications on their business models particularly in relation to their funding budget. We should already think about funders to unsure our strategies are achievable.

Sulamba Shaban – Finance and administration manager at STIPRO and OTT-TTI Fellow

What are the main design implementation gaps? Let me highlight two:

  • Lack of accountability: Policy designers don’t want to think about the implementation of the policy at the design stage because they don’t feel accountable about their failures. As a result, they may fail to point out what could go wrong and take on appropriate measures to overcome these risks before the actual implementation.
  • Inadequate budgets: There have been issues with the policy designers on attaching incorrect or unrealistic budgets to proposed policies which in the end are either overestimated or underestimated – hindering implementation. Overestimation of costs may lead to delays in adopting a policy idea; while underestimation may lead to missing outcomes.

So what can think tanks do about this?

Given the experience in data analysis and the wealth of data possessed by think tanks, they should be readily available to assist governments in the ex-ante evaluation of policy – at the design stage. Most of our policy evaluation is done during or after implementation, which is when a policy is least likely to benefit from evaluation. Ex-ante evaluation provides strategic information about the main choices at an early stage, when the possibility to influence the course of an undertaking is greatest. This approach attempts to find out the best approach or conceptual solution for implementing a policy.

Of course, evaluation in the implementation stage and afterward is also valuable as it provides valuable information to improve design and decisions for similar projects in future.

Think tanks should pay attention to financial and budgeting issues at the early stages of policy design so as to be able to understand with clarity what are the project activities and what would be the related  activities to achieve the objectives. In practice this may involve hiring new research staff with the right public finance skills -or using existing staff with financial capacities, such as finance officers.