Since arriving seven weeks ago, I have been warmly welcomed into the Ministry of Public Works community (MPW) – receiving numerous invitations for both work-related projects and leisure activities. Life apart from the Ministry has been pleasant, as well. Regular conversation with neighbors and other expats have enabled me to develop a better understanding of the unique Liberian context. One goal that remains, though, is getting to know the country outside of Monrovia.
Sharing a large bowl of dry rice with coworkers.
Last weekend I came to the realization that if I was to visit the beaches up north, I would have to go immediately, before the rainy season picked up and the sun was stolen away. In terms of weather, my friends and I struck gold: skies were clear, the heat was tolerable and wind was low. In terms of travel logistics, though, we were not so lucky. Vehicle trouble minutes before our departure presaged our journey ahead –and by the end of the trip, our vehicle had broken down twice. The trip was riddled with challenges, but by the end of the day we made it to beach and back –and had an [interestingly] incredible time.
In retrospect, I cannot help but to draw parallels between this adventure and the work I am doing with the MPW.
My main job involves guiding a Ministry bureau in developing a strategy and work plan for the next 18 months (the remaining time of the current administration). Bureau leadership recently changed (due to ongoing Ministry reform), and with both an enthusiastic/methodical bureau director at the helm and increasing political demand for infrastructural improvements, there is currently sufficient leadership, will and pressure to mobilize bureau efforts. With these key components already in place upon my arrival in June, my MPW colleagues and I sought to plot out a road map for strategy development.
Within days, however, we came to a crucial discovery and first major setback: the bureau lacked a framework mapping out operational roles and responsibilities. Our plan for strategic development would need to be beefed up into a deep bureau reform, starting with a functional framework.
Over the next month, my Ministry colleagues and I made great strides to develop a framework. Through numerous key informant meetings, staff interviews, surveys and ongoing discussion with the bureau minister, the bureau developed a framework that (1) clarified linkages between the bureau mission statement and operational objectives, (2) ironed out essential operations and relationships internal (and in some instances, external) to the bureau and (3) achieved endorsement from nearly all parties involved.
Our makeshift Gantt chart used for a work planning session.
Now, for the key realization…
Early on, it was agreed that the reform process would take the following course:
Upon framework finalization, the bureau would conduct a gap analysis, utilizing the framework as the standard against which current operations would be compared. The gap analysis would enable the bureau to identify key operations requiring strengthening and, in some cases, total reconstruction. In light of these findings, a capacity assessment would be conducted to identify areas of relevant expertise… (And the plan goes on.)
In theory (in the realm of sunny skies, pleasant temperatures, etc.), this process seemed well thought out and executable; however, now that the bureau is a month into this reform, it is becoming increasingly evident to me that the process will be challenged. (Improvement at this level is never easy.) Although this realization may seem quite obvious, being part this reform offers me a front row seat to analyze specific obstacles impeding progress; they include:
- Schedules and Timelines. Scheduling is a constant struggle. When decision making power is localized in the highest tiers of the bureaucratic structure, it is difficult to confirm plans with certainty, and so sometimes decisions are made at the most senior level before staff has finalized its analysis and made recommendations to the minister. Scheduling is also a major constraint imposed by external parties supporting reform processes (for the bureau, external parties include me and two donor agencies). Donors/partners have their own agendas and windows for collaboration and coordination may close fast.
- An Increasingly Intensive Plan. The effort needed to jumpstart and maintain reform processes is greater than initially anticipated, and thus, requires additional commitment from the bureau. This rings truest for the bureau director, who as leader, will need to (1) devote the most time to the process, (2) become a firm decision maker (a new role for her) and (3) steer the reform through a convoluted and sometimes unpredictable bureaucratic atmosphere.
- Low Resource and Capacity. What is in the bureau’s power to improve and what is not? Sometimes institutions become accustomed to blaming operational weaknesses on a lack of resource and capacity (which in reality are very legitimate/salient obstacles), and this makes it difficult to shift attention to less popular/more controllable areas for reform, such as coordination and communication.
In light of the obstacles lining the bureau’s path to reform, it is important not to forget the larger picture, which is, with a strong leader and increased attention/ renewed motivation in the bureau, the window is open for reform processes to take off. Reform is a long term process; however, there is a beginning to everything –and the MPW is taking major steps to launch this process.
In conclusion, although the logistics surrounding my trip greatly deviated from initial plans, by Sunday afternoon, I had made it to the beach and back. Hopefully my contributions will support the bureau in also reaching a successful outcome.
Fishers along the coast in Robertsport, Liberia.