One of the key challenges for any policy maker is building support for change and ensuring the success of reforms. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Egyptian Ministry of State for Administrative Development therefore invited experts from Arab and OECD countries to a high-level meeting where participants exchanged experiences on making governance reforms happen. The meeting, organised within the framework of the Good Governance for Development in Arab Countries Initiative, took place on 5 March 2009 in Cairo, Egypt.
The meeting brought together representatives from governments, the media, and civil society from Arab and OECD countries. It provided participants from a wide range of backgrounds with the opportunity to share experiences on the successful implementation of governance reforms. The relationship between communication and reform received special attention, as winning support for policy implementation requires good communication with a range of different audiences and stakeholders.
Discussions and Outcomes
The meeting was chaired and opened by Dr. Ahmed Darwish, Egyptian Minister of State for Administrative Development and chair of the Good Governance for Development (GfD) in Arab Countries Initiative. In the opening session, policy makers with experience in reform shared their insight on national reform processes. Their presentations set a framework for the subsequent discussions. Based on their reform experiences, the keynote speakers identified main factors which help reforms succeed. These can be summarised as follows: a) the existence of appropriate institutions to support the process of reform from the decision stage to the implementation stage; b) the impact of reforms on different groups and the capacity to deal with their reactions; c) the management of the timing and interactions across different policy areas; d) the role of evidence and the use of data; and e) the role of multilateral co-operation and international organisations in supporting reforms.
In his opening speech, Minister Darwish underlined that reforms require not only an intelligent use of policy instruments and available resources, but that any successful reform process implies a need to clearly define and adequately communicate reform visions and objectives.
Professor Maria Manuel Leitão Marques, Secretary of State for Administrative Modernisation in Portugal made a keynote presentation sharing her extensive experience with conducting complex public governance reforms in Portugal. In particular she presented the experiences with Simplex, Portugal’s Administrative Modernisation Strategy, which was recently analysed by the OECD in the publication Making Life Easy for Citizens and Businesses in Portugal: Administrative Simplification and e-Government. In her presentation, Professor Leitão Marques outlined the main goals, initiatives, key areas and outcomes of Simplex. Simplex seeks to bring the administration closer to citizens and businesses by simplifying public services and procedures. Professor Leitão Marques described how Portugal consulted citizens and businesses as the programme was designed and implemented in order to integrate their concerns and requests.
Ambassador Agustín Garcìa-López, Permanent Delegate of Mexico to the OECD, who formerly held several positions at the Mexican Ministry of the Treasury and the Mexican Foreign Service, drew on Mexico’s successful strategies for the implementation of governance reform. He briefly outlined Mexico’s opening of the economy in the second half of the 1980’s and then referred to recent fiscal and pension system reforms, highlighting the main factors for their success: a)Learning from international public policy best practices; b) Ensuring technical soundness; c) Assessing the political viability of reform programmes; d) Choosing the right time to launch reforms; e) Appointing a proposal’s leader at the highest level; f) Starting direct consultation early on; g) Compromising; h) Raising public and policy makers’ awareness on related subjects; and i) Generating sound public debate. Ambassador Garcìa-López noted that Mexico’s experiences can be of interest to the public administrations of several Arab countries which have to meet, as much as Mexico, the rising expectations of a growing and very young population in terms of employment, social security, public service delivery and energy supply.
In the subsequent session, Minister Darwish delivered a special address on the interrelated challenges between conducting and communicating reforms. He underlined the importance of developing policy messages that resonate with different audiences in order to gain support for public governance reform. Different reform stakeholders from the government, the private sector, the civil society, as well as citizens must be involved in the reform process in order to build support for change and make reforms happen. Minister Darwish noted that Arab countries increasingly seek to involve civil society organisations in reform processes and to adequately communicate with the media.
A panel discussed then the challenges of communicating public governance reforms. The panel discussion was moderated by Mr. Aart De Geus, Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD and brought together participants from different backgrounds, comprising government officials as well as representatives of the media. The audience had the opportunity to participate in this open discussion in a dynamic and interactive manner.
Participants recognised that in a globalised world, technological innovation results in greater opportunities for communicating reforms and interaction with the different stakeholders inside the government, citizens, or the business community. At the same time, global challenges may render national reform projects technically more complex and information floods may overburden the public’s attention. The panellists agreed that policy makers and the media have to work together to translate increasingly complex public governance reforms in focused messages and in a language accessible to the public. Government and the media should make a joint effort to encourage public interest in governance reforms. Their common objective is to prevent or overcome ignorance, misperception and lack of understanding that hamper reforms. The question is to what extent and how the media and governments can co-operate in order to generate public interest and stimulate public debate on reform subjects. In this context, the panellists discussed how governments can influence media behaviour without being accused of illiberal interference or political instrumentalisation.
The panel also discussed how adequate communication strategies can help overcome potential resistance to change and help build trust in government. Public governance reforms may have short-term costs, while many of the benefits only become visible in the long term. Groups or individuals may feel penalised and thus contest reform projects, whereas many of the beneficiaries may not be aware of the long-term benefits governance reforms will have.
Mr. Jean-Yves Huwart, a business and economic journalist from Belgium, noted that communication strategies have to ensure that citizens, public sector staff, and representatives of the business community and the civil society do not feel like passive recipients of public governance reforms with little influence and control over the reform process. Successful communication strategies have to trigger creative impulses and a shared sense of ownership for reform.
The afternoon session provided government officials from Arab and OECD governments with the opportunity for the first time to discuss in a regional forum the impact of the economic and financial crisis as well as strategies to deal with the crisis. Participants in the roundtable discussion notably presented their strategies for moving forward with national governance reform agendas in times of economic uncertainty. The roundtable discussion was moderated by Ambassador Chris Hoornaert, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the OECD and co-chair of the Good Governance for Development (GfD) in Arab Countries Initiative.
Participants addressed the opportunities and challenges for carrying out reforms in a context of economic uncertainty. They discussed in particular whether and to what extent the current global economic and financial crisis can provide the case for change and a window of opportunity for governance reform, or on the contrary, whether it becomes an obstacle to reform by increasing resistance and slowing down the pace of reforms. Participants agreed that the impact of the economy on reform projects has to be considered carefully when shaping and implementing reform strategies. They recognised that critical economic and financial situations can become a reform driver and an incentive for adapting government action. The general opinion expressed in the meeting was that the current situation should not be used to justify the deceleration of required reforms. However, the policy priorities and the sequencing of reforms may shift when economic uncertainty prevails. Delegates from Arab countries noted that the implementation of previous decisions can be postponed, new policy elements can be introduced in the agenda, and a number of necessary modernisation processes, as for example in the area of e-government, could be perceived as too costly and low-priority. Policies oriented to adjust the size of government and downsize the civil service may also be challenged by the crisis as the public sector has to deal with the implications of increased unemployment.
Participants also reflected on appropriate policy instruments to effectively respond to the crisis. They presented mechanisms for the co-ordination, the adequate sequencing and the prioritisation of public governance reforms in times of economic crisis. Several participating countries underlined the utmost importance of leadership, citizen consultation and enforced accountability mechanisms in the government’s dealing with the crisis.
Participants from Arab and OECD countries noted that the regional policy dialogue and national peer reviews provided by the GfD Initiative are the main tools for making reforms succeed, in particular in times of economic uncertainty. They acknowledged that the use of empirical evidence, public policy evaluation and peer reviews can drive governance reform forward, improve the quality of reform, empower governments to respond to the pressure of change, and help them gain support for unpopular reforms.
Delegates called for more transparent and efficient instruments and global solutions. Arab countries expressed some discomfort with the international system of multilateral co-operation, as they are suffering the impact of a severe crisis which originated in developed countries, but do not have access to the international forums in which the solutions to the crisis are discussed. They emphasized the importance of the GfD Initiative in filling this gap and acknowledged the key role of the OECD in providing a platform for multilateral exchange.
Arab countries identified strengthened multilateral co-operation as a key condition for overcoming the crisis and for building more efficient economies. Delegates considered that economic protectionism would have very negative consequences for Arab countries. Regional integration and trade were mentioned as preferable tools and a top priority for preparing the aftermath of the crisis.
Opening Session: Keynote speeches: Reforming public governance - lessons and challenges
Session 1: Panel discussion: The challenges of communicating reform
Session 2: Sharing experiences on moving forward with the governance reform agenda