In development work one often hears the phrase, "we have good plans, but bad implementation". Eastern Cape has enough examples of good plans that have been implemented badly. For example, the Eastern Cape department of education returned R530-million earmarked for building schools, revamping old ones, providing furniture and maintaining existing school infrastructure to the Treasury in 2016. Part of this money went to Gauteng (R400-million), Limpopo (R80-million) and Western Cape (50-million).
This was in clear contravention of the good plans set out in the department of basic education's Accelerated School Infrastructure Delivery Initiative (ASIDI). In local municipalities and the metros, living conditions of the poor and informal-settlement dwellers have not improved, despite many good plans to address this.
The Amathole district municipality in Eastern Cape failed to build 66,000 toilets planned for its rural population. This article explores the complex challenge of planning and implementation and offers some suggestions on what ought to be done to strengthen either or both planning and implementation.
One cannot help but ask: is the "good plans – bad implementation" statement true? Where is the problem? Is it in our capacity to implement the plans, or is it that the plans are not actually implementable?
If we assume that the plans are good, then the problem could either be that we don't have the right people in place to implement the plans, or the systems, procedures and institutional arrangements for managing the implementation of the plans could be inappropriate. An example of "wrong people" would be where people who don't have the necessary skills are being appointed to implement the plans.
An example of "weak systems" on the other hand, may be that there is no coordination between government departments to secure budgets and coordinate activities between departments. In this case, no one wants to take decisions for starting implementation, as they are scared that if something goes wrong they will be held accountable. I this way, funds get returned to treasury.
Strategies to address the problem of lack of capacity or "weak people" include: getting the right people into the job by improving the recruitment processes and having a more vigorous job-interview process; training those who are already in the job in how to project manage and implement plans; implementing talent-retention programmes that focus on keeping good people in their jobs; and supporting innovation and risk-taking so that those in a position to implement plans are encouraged to try different approaches and do whatever it takes to get the plans implemented.
With good coordination, one department is able to secure funds while another department acquires land, another puts in the services, and a further department builds a house, school or a community hall.
A significant reason why good plans remain poorly implemented is that there is weak consequence management for failure to implement within government institutions.
There are multiple strategies that could be used to address the problem of "weak systems" and procedures for managing implementation. For projects and programmes in which more than one role-player is involved, improved coordination between role-players improves implementation.
For example with good coordination, one department is able to secure funds while another department acquires land, another puts in the services, and a further department builds a house, school or a community hall.
Another strategy to address weak implementation systems and procedures is to establish programme teams or units with their own dedicated capacity in a sector or geographical area – to take full responsibility for planning and implementing a comprehensive programme; i.e. a housing programme in which a housing department has its own urban planners, engineers and house builders who are all managed as part of a single housing-programme unit.
Or an area-based team – in which a group of planners, engineers, builders, etc. are all coordinated by a unit responsible for development in one particular geographic area. The ability to implement plans is enhanced in both the sector- and the area-based approaches if the necessary funds needed for implementation are also ring-fenced and set aside specifically for implementation in that particular sector or area.
If, on the other hand, the problem is that the plans themselves are inappropriate, this could be because the plans are weak, or the planning process is not suitable.
An example of "weak plans" could be that the plans are too detailed and complicated, in that the plans try to achieve too much, and/or the person implementing the plan has to read through too much information to work out exactly what they have to do.
Alternatively "weak plans" could mean that the plans are too simple, in that they do not provide enough information and guidance as to what needs to be done, because they leave information out, or they do not cover all the issues.
An example of an "inappropriate plan" is one in which the plan that is developed is based on incomplete information. It may be misleading as to what the issues are that need to be addressed and as a result, the solutions and plans will not be properly aligned to the real situation on the ground.
Another example of an "inappropriate plan process" is one in which the conditions are changing so much as plans are being developed, that by the time one wants to implement the plans, the plans are out of date and inappropriate. Or conditions change as the plan is being implemented, as a result of unanticipated feedback from previous actions undertaken as per the plan, making subsequent actions identified in the plan inappropriate.
Whether the underlying challenge to poor execution of plans lie in "bad implementation" or having "bad plans", one way to address the challenge is to involve "implementers" in the planning process
An appropriate strategy to respond to inappropriate plans would be to simplify the plans by reducing the jargon referred to in the plans and making it very clear who has to do what and by when, when it comes to implementation of the plans.
Another strategy would be to reduce the objectives of what the plan attempts to achieve by, for example, in a plan for a new bulk water supply project, just focusing on installing the water pipes and not complicating matters by also trying to use new labour-based local-procurement procedures with alternative water sources, etc.
Complicated and big projects can also be broken into phases and into separate smaller plans. If on the other hand, the plans are too simple, then the solution is to be more specific in what output and outcome the plan aims to achieve, and also to provide more detail in the plan, making it clear who is responsible for undertaking the steps required to successfully implement the plan.
We therefore call on government and those responsible for developing plans – depending on the context – to either find ways to simplify or make the plans less complicated, thereby making it much easier for those who have to implement the plans to know exactly what is expected of them during the implementation, or to be more specific in outlining the steps that are needed to implement the plan, so that those who have to execute the plan know exactly what is expected of them.
A further strategy to address the problem of "inappropriate planning" is to follow a more adaptive planning approach. Instead of following a rigid set of steps as outlined in the conventional master-planning approach, an adaptive planning and implementation approach is one that is able to adapt to changes in the broader environment while the plan is being developed and implemented, while still working towards an agreed broad vision.
Whether the underlying challenge to poor execution of plans lie in "bad implementation" or having "bad plans", one way to address the challenge is to involve "implementers" in the planning process, so that their insights can be brought in to ensure that the plans that are developed are appropriate, as well as involving "planners" in the implementation phase, so they can help interpret the plan and be on hand to help guide any plan adjustments that may be needed.
Experience has taught us that there is more to the "good plans and bad implementation" statement than one may have initially thought. Solutions to "bad implementation" may not just lie in improving implementation as many think, but may also lie in improving "bad planning".
Eglin is a specialist for sustainable settlements at Afesis-corplan, an NGO that contributes to community-driven development and good local governance in Eastern Cape.