Leadership: Why policy proposals fail

Our policy execution at national and devolved government levels is inadequate, wanting, and fraught with monumental wastage of resources.

Reasons abound as to why seemingly good policies fail and some poor policies succeed, chief of which is leadership. Because leadership is a key determinant of the success or failure of policy implementation, we perhaps need to explore the genesis of global policy formulation.

In the late 1980s, many developing countries were going through various forms of financial crises to the extent that there was need for intervention from outside their own contexts.

The Bretton Woods Institutions therefore joined hands with the United States to craft a set of 10 relatively specific economic policy prescriptions that were considered to constitute a “standard” reform package.

The prescriptions encompassed policies in such areas as macroeconomic stabilization, economic inclusion with respect to both trade and investment, and the expansion of market forces within the domestic economy.


Surprisingly, these remedies met with opposition, even from within the team of economists crafting them, terming them as part of a neoliberal agenda.

However, the leadership from the World Bank and the IMF prevailed, resulting in the adoption of the policy under what English economist John Williamson coined as the Washington Consensus.

The outcomes of the Washington Consensus reforms have been the subject of protracted debate.

While some critics hold that the reforms led to destabilization of the beneficiary economies, others maintain that some developing countries would not be where they are today had it not been for the reforms.

Whichever way one argues, there is consensus that it is the leadership behind the seemingly controversial policy that shaped the desired results.

The policy was promoted in developing countries, where it elicited debate, which ultimately paved way for implementation.

John Wallis, in his article, ‘‘Understanding the role of leadership in economic policy reform,’’ suggests that a demand for coherent policy leadership is characterised by its commitment to advance a consistent set of policy principles arising from the various sources of “governance failure” that accounts for the observed unevenness in implementation.

He demonstrates how a “conspiratorial” network established itself as a collective source of such leadership in New Zealand by interacting in a way that developed a high level of mutual trust by penetrating and reconstituting a fragmented structure of insulated policy networks.

In Kenya, we have such fragmented structure of insulated policy networks that unless they are dismantled or reconstituted, our development agenda will remain an exercise in futility.

There are glaring shortcomings in the implementation of social policies like health and education, in which interest groups have resorted to interpreting the constitution to match their individual and corporate advantage.

One of the areas to which county government rushed with policy pronouncements was in health, where virtually each county bought ambulances.

It is traumatizing that very few of those ambulances are used for the purpose for which they were bought.

Despite the fact that the ordinary citizen, who needs the service does not know where to get an ambulance, they are used to ferry vegetables to markets for the county representatives.

There is neither leadership, nor mechanisms to ensure that these critical services benefit those who need them the most.

These are the consequences of inadequate, indifferent leadership, and ill-conceived and poorly promoted policies. Reports are rife of expectant mothers having to be carried on wheelbarrows to hospitals to deliver their babies.

Perhaps the initial investment should have been a control room with a manned emergency number, followed by an aggressively marketed Global Positioning System which would enable far flung clients/users to be accessed more easily.

These technologies are so affordable that by now, county governments should have developed an addressing system that would enable them to know where each county resident resides for better service delivery.

Policies in the modern world are not made without data. The random approach adopted by some governors has resulted in their buying more ambulances than they will ever need.

In addition, policies not informed by empirical evidence is bound to lead the misuse of public resources. Appropriate leadership provides political commitment and governance by leveraging on resource availability and smart ways of service coverage.

It also takes into consideration inclusivity so as to avoid ambiguity in setting goals and objectives.

Overcoming these conventional challenges will result in better policy outcomes. Although this is partially true, research by Spillane, Reiser and Reimer direct our attention to the cognitive factors that play a critical role in policy implementation.

They argued that implementing agents try to make sense of policy provisions before acting on them. John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.