Civil service expenditure in Fiji

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Guest blog written by Bernadette C Bainimarama

I signed up for this course with the belief that I would learn strategies to implement policies for problems that I assumed I knew the solutions to. What I did not expect was that I would learn so much more than that – not only about my problem, but of my “solutions” and especially about my role as a (young) leader in bureaucratic machine in the midst of a global crisis.

  1. What were some key learnings from this course?

My learnings from this course were not specifically technical in nature – I am not leaving with the answers in my pocket but I learnt so much in terms of the way I approach problems that can seem too difficult or complex. A few of the take-aways from this course are:

  • There are no small wins and that we shouldn’t be afraid to try to step out for fear of perceived “loss”. Loss is an experience: we are either learning what works, what does not, or that we need to dig a little deeper into what the issue is to come up with some out of the box solutions. What is important here is creating space and legitimacy to be able to learn, and pivot. Be open to new information and ideas and importantly, build that culture in the spaces that I have the opportunity to, and challenge my preconceptions.
  • Building relationships is key – with my team, with the team involved in addressing the larger issues and with my authorisers. It is important to understand what others’ perceptions of the issue is, influencing what we each thought the solution to our problem was.
  • Stop and reflect. At the beginning of the course, I struggled with wanting to jump straight into the solutions. The IPP programme taught me an invaluable lesson about leading with intentionality, which for me meant stopping to take stock of what we have learnt and plotting our next few steps based on that information, setting ourselves up for wins and legitimacy as we go along.

It needs to be clarified that I did not embark on this PDIA adventure alone. I had the support of my Permanent Secretary, also a participant, and my team members and staff who learnt alongside me.

  1. What implementation challenge are you working on?

In the past 4 years, the Fijian Civil Service has seen an establishment increase of 14.5% contributing to the increase in the overall wage bill to $1.1 billion, without a perceivable (or measured) increase in productivity, outputs or outcomes.

We have seen the largest economic contraction in Fijian history due to the COVID19 pandemic. Public finances are under severe strain with revenue collections at almost half of pre-COVID-19 levels with expenditure on unemployment assistance that continues to be on an upward trend.

It currently costs an average of $4 million per day to fund the civil service alone. This level of expenditure needs to be brought under control.

The opportunity cost of funding an oversized civil service is that we are unable to provide funding to improving employment opportunities to kick start the economy, or funding that could go towards improving our health system or other worthy social programs. We need to find a balance by ensuring that public services are delivered in a fiscally responsible, sustainable and cost-effective fashion.

  1. What progress did you make or what insights did you have about your problem through this process?

By deconstructing the problem, we realized that the issue was not that we faced a major wage bill that needed to be minimized, but that we did not have an understanding, or data to, identify what an appropriately sized civil service should look like. We further realized that previous budget controls that we had strategized would be a band-aid answer and that we needed to dig into each strand of the problem to be able to find long term sustainable solutions to the bigger issue at hand.

Deconstructing and digging into the root causes of solutions was exhaustive work and would often be demotivating as it seems we were uncovering more problems than we knew what to deal with!

However, motivated by the idea that there are “no small wins” we dug our heels in and looked for an ‘in’, an entry point which, from the outside did not seem very promising or glamorous, but that would provide an opportunity for us to get our foot in the door and start to make some progress. This ‘in’ came in the form of payroll, one of the only centralised data sources that existed. From this came so many opportunities to build on and around what we did know and a vision of what the small wins could amount to began to take shape.

Navigating a complex space with many authorisers was not easy- I needed my own authoriser on my team to support what was going to be tough, politically and administratively. Fortunately, my own Permanent secretary was on her own PDIA adventure and she was able to support me as I developed the itch for other authorisers, including our Minister. It was also imperative that my own team was on board so I built my 1804 team and focussed on getting them on board and providing them with the support they needed to make their own progress.

With this support and with my PDIA toolkit in hand, I set about making some progress in the following strategies that we identified during the deconstruction process.

  • Improving data through the development of a central database for payroll, budget and establishment information;
  • Review KPIs for Permanent Secretaries (and Ministries) to more effectively portray establishment management as a priority of Government; and
  • Scope a robust capacity development program for Strategic Workforce Planning in the Fijian Civil Service

What motivated you and how might this approach change (or not change) the way you tackle problems in the future.

Where we found root problems, we also motivated ourselves to also view this as an opportunity to finally address issues that had long been on the way side. For example, being able to scope the first functional review for the payroll system in 18 years.

Although we were not solving all the problems in the civil service, we could see how these small wins could contribute and that kept us motivated.

In our context, influenced by political factors, we are often obligated to look for grand solutions that often provide a tick in the box without actually making progress to address the underlying issues. PDIA has changed our approach in this way – a “clean as you go” approach as my team likes to call it.

The PDIA principles will continue to influence our approach to complex problems and we are excited to be able to utilize the learning as we go.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

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