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Governing in prose: Princeton case studies highlight the day-to-day challenges of reform


Innovations for Successful Societies Case Studies

A Promise Kept: How Sierra Leone's President Introduced Free Health Care in One of the Poorest Nations on Earth, 2009-2010  | Michael Scharff

Turning on the Lights in Freetown, Sierra Leone: Completing the Bumbuna Hydroelectric Plant, 2008-2009  |  Jonathan (Yoni) Friedman


Delivering on a Presidential Agenda: Sierra Leone's Strategy and Policy Unit, 2010-2011  | Michael Scharff


Improving Coordination and Prioritization: Streamlining Rwanda's National Leadership Retreat, 2008-2011 | Deepa Iyer



"You campaign in poetry and govern in prose." The words of Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York, will ring true for anyone who has struggled to get things done in government. Often policies fail not because the vision or strategy are wrong but because of small breaks in the chain linking the goal with the reality.

The importance of getting the details of implementation right is highlighted in a set of recent case studies by Innovations for Successful Societies a Princeton University research centre. The three studies centre on the Government of Sierra Leone’s efforts to introduce free health care, bring electricity to free town, and build a Strategy and Policy Unit in the Office of the President. Each gives a rich and detailed account of the realities of reform, and they are well worth a read.

AGI had the privilege of supporting some of the Government of Sierra Leone reforms the Princeton team looked at. And reading back through the case studies reminded me of some of the issues we regularly come across in our projects. In our own work we often talk to governments about the importance of focusing on the ‘3Ps’ of implementation: Prioritisation, Planning, and Performance Management. These are easy to say but hard to do, and each ‘P’ comes out very clearly in the Sierra Leone research.

Prioritisation is always tough, particularly in a political environment where any perceived deprioritisation will attract criticism. But prioritisation is essential for effective implementation, particularly where resources are scarce. In the Strategy and Policy Unit case in Sierra Leone, the focus on a small number of issues meant a small unit could have a disproportionate impact:

 “Setting the flagship projects was a way of saying we are going to focus our priorities on these areas because we believe these areas are critical to improving the social and economic landscape of Sierra Leone”


And in the delivery of Free Health Care, ‘lack of focus’  and the ‘press of everyday business’ made it harder for government and development partners to act in unison.

Getting from high level strategies to detailed action plans is another challenge faced by governments everywhere. Again, the Free Health Care example is telling:

“without a statement of concrete objectives, a list of implementation steps and a timetable. Ministers could not manage resources effectively… without a plan it was difficult for a ministry to coordinate at the centre of government”


Finally, once a plan is in place, the third P, Performance Management kicks in. This is partly about the usual process of collecting data and monitoring performance that you would expect in any organisation, put simply ‘Monitoring was important to ensure that things got done’. But it’s also about making sure political accountability and leadership are brought to bear when implementation slips. The system of Presidential contracts and stocktakes introduced by President Koroma and described in the SPU case study is a great example of focusing Presidential authority where it can have the biggest impact.

Andy Ratcliffe, Director of Strategy and Development at the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative