Policy problem and how to deal with implementation challenge

Monday February 17 2020

Emilly Comfort Maractho

Emilly Comfort Maractho 

By Emilly Comfort Maractho

There is a general idea that Uganda has no shortage of good policies but the problem is ‘just’ implementation.
But why do we have good policies and weak implementation that are exploited by various groups to the detriment of those for whom it is intended?

There is no better example of a good decision whose implementation ‘just’ failed like the 2009 ban on plastic bags (kaveera) below 30 microns.

As soon as the ban was announced, challenges of implementation began to emerge as various groups lobbied government (the decision maker) to ‘at least allow them sell old stock.’ Ten years later, it is hard to remember such a decision existed not long ago. Several intermittent attempts to reignite it equally failed.

Many people rush to explain this failure as a function of corruption and greed by the implementers. But that is only symptomatic of a different problem, that the decisions may have been flowed in the first place.

There are many policies that fail because of their legislative intent. Simon Sinek, author of Start with why, argues that people buy why you do something and not what that something is.

Some policies are doomed before the ink that signed them dries because of why and how they were developed. The legislative intent overshadows the need to objectively assess the capacity of the implementing bureaucracy, activities of interest groups and execution support.


When I read last year that the Uganda National Teachers Union (Unatu) had disowned the lower level curriculum and understood the scale of change required, I was surprised about the intended start period.

I wondered how ready the implementing bureaucracy would be by that date. I was thus not surprised that Parliament recently put a stop to its implementation on grounds that there were readiness challenges despite money being availed. In the world of policy, when decisions are made about a course of action, that includes execution.

Sir Andrew Likierman, a professor at London Business School and a director of Times Newspaper and the Beazley Group in London, also a former director of the Bank of England, suggests that factoring in the feasibility of execution is a critical element of good judgement and improving decision making.

‘You can make all the right strategic choices but still end up losing if you don’t exercise judgement in how and by whom those choices will be executed.’

Likierman, writing in the Harvard Business Review of January to February 2020 on the key elements of good decision making says that ‘leaders with good judgement tend to be good listeners and readers-able to hear what other people actually mean, and thus able to see patterns that others do not’.

He adds that they have a breadth of experiences and relationships that enable them to recognise parallels or analogies that others miss-and if they don’t know something, they’ll know someone who does and lean on that person’s judgement.

Additionally, they can recognise their own emotions and biases and take them out of the equation, are adept at expanding the array of choices under consideration and ‘remain grounded in the real world - in making a choice they also consider its implementation’.

It is in considering the implementation that we often fail. We also do not question the assumptions of the proposers and are not given options to engage with.

We should all be concerned about this policy implementation failure. If for no other reason, that our hard earned tax payer’s money that should go to ‘developing Uganda’ will ultimately go to waste, never solving the problems for which the policies were intended. Also, we do not have that much resources, so using the little we have well is critical.

More importantly, we should be concerned because in one way or another, public policy failure means that in addition to paying taxes, we have to pay a higher price for a failed health care system through exorbitant fees in private hospitals, for a dysfunctional education system by sending our children to expensive private schools beyond our means, or meeting the needs of our parents and aging relatives because of a failed social security system that leaves majority vulnerable and for the community to care for.

The reality is that many of these policies need rethinking in light of the implementation setbacks they have suffered. We seem to learn nothing from previous policy failures.

Policy makers need to seek a middle ground in which they critically look at evidence from research and experience, from practice in order to produce policies that are good, can be implemented within existing bureaucratic capacity despite funding challenges, human resource gaps and limited enabling infrastructure.

If we start to care about the nature of our decisions and why we make them, putting meaningful public interest back in policy making, we will have much higher return on investment in these decisions.

Otherwise we will continue to make policies for the gallery, to be seen to have great policies that for generations we will keep lamenting, only failed at implementation.

Dr Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media
studies at UCU. emillycm@gmail.com