“I feel proud of myself, very proud,” said Rokhaya Niang as she worked. She and her team had had only 100 days to streamline and accelerate the administrative processing of land subdivision applications at the local Ministry of Urbanization office in Rufisque, a city 25 km east of the center of Dakar. The area has been developing quickly since it was chosen as the location of the new national government center, and their office had been swamped under a backlog of allotment and construction requests.
In early 2017, the World Bank piloted a project to help kick start the Government’s new Public Sector Modernization Program, taking on two (out of 50) targeted processes: land subdivision requests, managed by the Ministry of Urbanization, and water connections, implemented by a private service provider.
The project adopted a rapid results approach, betting that a quick and intensive intervention could avert the inertia that had bogged down prior, top-down reform efforts.
The rapid results approach seeks to unlock the latent capacity and potential within organizations by empowering the staff most familiar with a given process to identify solutions to its difficulties, thereby providing a way forward for reforms. Thus Rokhaya, though a comparatively junior staff member, took on the responsibility for clearing the complex backlog of requests.
While the rapid results approach is not new—it has been used at the Bank for 15 years across a range of countries such as Burundi, Madagascar and Kenya, including at scale—it fits conceptually within the more recent science of delivery or Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation toolbox. Instead of ex-ante, top-down planning, these approaches all place a strong focus on fostering quality in implementation and encouraging the internal capacity to adapt. The rapid results approach can be a powerful tool for problem identification, engagement, and course correction, as well as a way to incentivize performance.
But the rapid results approach is not for everyone and not for every context. On the client’s side, the government must mobilize—and sustain—high-level political and strategic support, which requires an energetic champion and a window of opportunity.
Requires energetic backing
In Senegal, the team benefitted from the President’s personal goal of public sector reform. There is also an element of trade-off: ministries must redirect significant human resources, at least in the short-term, which may affect activities in other important areas. Finding the right skills locally to take on the all-important coaching of the teams can be a headache. There is also a real risk of exposing governance problems, which in the case of Senegal may have prompted an abrupt reshuffle of an entire department of the Ministry of Urbanization.
Such an unexpected peek through the keyhole of public administration was, of course, tremendously rich and insightful, and is described in more detail in our second post (here).
Implementing rapid results is also a heavy lift on the Bank’s side in human resources. While light on capital (US$100,000 in the case of Senegal) such a project can be very labor intensive. For example, in the pilot phase, much effort was expended in setting boundaries, including clarifying that the Bank’s presence was not as a bank per se with the responsibility of taking on daily expenses on location. Although cheap to implement, a rapid results project may not register as a priority or be competitive against big-ticket projects and, since the approach requires many iterations over time to show structural outcomes (Burundi had, at last count, 245 iterations under its belt), the rapid results approach may not always fit within a given project or cycle or even a country team’s strategic horizon.
For the record, Rokhaya and the other teams did get results. By the end of the 100 days, water-connection times were reduced by 50%, and a backlog of 308 outstanding connection requests was cleared. The Urbanization team cleared its backlog of 62 outstanding requests (some dating back to 2011) and eight of the ten new land subdivision applications were processed in 60 days— half the time required by law. The coming months will tell whether these improvements will be locked down and scaled up, and whether the government will expand the exercise across its 50 priority processes.
In hindsight, finding the right approach was perhaps the easy part.