The policy paralysis in Ghana: how we could move forward

If you want to know what baptism of fire is, go talk to President Mahama. From energy and water supply crisis to large budget deficits; from labour unrest to the perception of wanton corruption, this administration has seen it all. The government, however, is not helping itself by the seeming helplessness it is displaying with one inconsequential directive issued after another.

Apart from the usual platitudes, the government has failed to either spell out or advertise any clear policies to deal with the problems confronting the country. No one therefore knows where the country is heading, even though we appear to have borrowed in 5 years more money than all previous governments put together. The policy paralysis that we are experiencing is not characteristic of only the Mahama government but has been with us since January 2009 when the NDC was voted back into power.

What really is a policy? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ?a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body?. The definition which, however, appeals to me is this one from the UK?s ?Modernising Government? White Paper of 1999:

?Policy making is the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver outcomes and desired changes in the real world?.

It is clear from these definitions that governments are expected to formulate policies to achieve outcomes that lead to changes desired by their populations. These policies are informed by vision or ideology. Policies can be derived from party election manifestos, which at the global level, address the general direction the governing party wants the country to go. Policies can be dictated by unforeseen events or develop out of undesirable situations in sectors that affect particular ministries and government departments. As a corollary, policies are either initiated by heads of governments or by ministers.

Amidst the hustings for political power, politicians receive no training on how to formulate policies. Hence Presidents and ministers only rely on their own competencies developed from their qualifications and more importantly from whatever experience they may have. If they have no previous policy formulation or analysis experience, it can lead to policy paralysis with governance reduced to announcements of one ad hoc measure after another.

To overcome this shortfall in policy formulation, political leaders usually appoint advisors with expertise in the relevant areas. The tendency in Africa, though, is for Presidents to appoint, as advisors, people they can control or those who will condescend. Whilst they live in this comfort zone, though, their nations suffer.

Policy formulation is only one side of the required action; policies also have to be operationalised and implemented to achieve their aims. This latter function is usually carried out by the civil service. Thus whilst the Executive is required to formulate policies (i.e. spell out the ?what to do?), the civil service is required to analyse and develop options for implementation (i.e. specify the ?how to do them?).

Situating the foregoing in the Ghanaian reality, it is not difficult to appreciate why we have the current policy paralysis. There are two dominant political parties: the NDC and NPP. It does not require divination to be able to forecast that for the foreseeable future one of them will be in power one time or the other. The NPP is good at formulating policies founded on their ideological tilt towards a ?free market? economy. Based on their 8-year rule, from 2001 to 2008, the record also shows that they were more capable in formulating and implementing policies to better the welfare of Ghanaians. The problem they have though is that, for whatever reasons, they are unable to win political power as often as they may wish. The NDC, which has won most elections in the 4th Republic, on the other hand, professes to be a social democratic party; a label it placed on itself in 2003. It is difficult, though, to find anything in their actions in government to underpin this ideological claim. Their record in government, as far as policy formulation and implementation are concerned, is not very noteworthy. ?Whenever they have come under pressure, they prefer to issue directives, which are oftentimes not grounded within any legal framework, and hence are susceptible to being ignored.

I am aware that some will find this observation very controversial. I, however, stand by them based on the fact that I have never heard or read a high-billed policy speech on any aspect of national life given by anybody from the NDC, whether Presidents, Presidential candidates, MPs ?or party Executives. If I have made a mistake in this assertion, I stand to be corrected. The insults that have greeted the latest Bawumia speech on the state of the Ghanaian economy illustrate vividly this conviction of mine.

With the fact of political life as we have it, we must find ways of helping whichever government is in power to be able to formulate and implement policies to seek the general welfare of Ghanaians. How can we go about this? Some have suggested that we should develop a single national development agenda, which all elected governments would be enjoined to execute. I am not convinced by this proposition.

First, if we were to adopt a common development agenda we stand the risk of our elections degenerating into personality contests without the freedom to choose between ideologies and ideas. Secondly, specifying a single development agenda does not wish away the need to grow the economy to fund such an agenda. Hence governments should have the free hand to run the economy in the manner which they believe will create and increase the national wealth. Further, the external world environment is not static; it is changing all the time. Having a national development agenda might lull those we elect into thinking that all is well so far as they are pursuing that agenda. This will stifle the innovation that may be required to solve problems of the times. Lastly, the implementation of a national development agenda requires that competent individuals are placed at the helm of affairs. However, if a particular President decides to place political considerations ahead of competency in the appointment of ministers and other officials, what would be there to stop him? We would still be saddled with the situation we are currently complaining about.

By the way, who says we do not have a national development agenda? A national development agenda is comprehensively spelt out in Chapter 6 of the Constitution in the Directive Principles of State Policy. It touches on almost every aspect of national life ? freedoms, justice, economy, employment, education, property rights, health, agriculture, industrialisation, security and human rights. Where the Constitution might be faulted is the requirement in Article 36 (5) that an incoming President should present to parliament a coordinated programme of economic and social development policies, to suit the principles, within two years of assuming office. This is way too late in a 4-year term.

This clause needs amending to require that such coordinated programmes are costed and presented within six months of assuming power. It should not be difficult for a President and a party who sat down to prepare a manifesto to win elections to present policies and action plans to meet the directive principles in 6 months. If we have had to wait for two years for such coordinated programme, it is not surprising that nothing appears to be happening.

As a way forward from the current situation, we should amend the Constitution to require that presidential candidates and political parties present their manifestos along the matrices prescribed by the Directive Principles of State Policy. This will make it easier to compare the different proposals submitted by different parties. There will also be a common basis for assessing the appropriateness, feasibility, affordability, and credibility of the programmes.

In the advanced democracies, the manifestos of the political parties who can potentially form the next government, are usually analysed and developed (with implementation options) ahead of elections. This is done to ensure that, irrespective of whoever wins, the winning party is ready to swing into action immediately after assuming office. This exercise is usually carried out by the civil service, in collaboration with the policy heads of the various parties. However, with the political interferences by past and present governments, it is doubtful that the Ghana Civil Service is politically neutral to be able to carry out such a function. Some recent reports have even questioned the availability of the required competency within the civil service for it to carry out policy analyses with a view towards implementation.

To rectify this situation we should also be looking to amend the Constitution to develop the National Development and Planning Commission (NDPC) into a policy analysis and implementation body independent of government. Its funding should be protected and charged on the consolidated fund. It should be empowered to develop its competence by carrying out its own recruitment, appointing its leaders and to commission expert reports.

Given that we have two dominant parties in Ghana, the re-oriented NDPC should be charged, ahead of elections, to analyse and transform both the NPP and NDC manifestos into achievable and measurable implementation plans. This should be ready for whichever of them is elected to start to implement from day one.

At the moment we appear to be on a hiding to nothing and that should worry every well meaning Ghanaian. I believe a radical shift as proposed above may be what is required. Who knows, perhaps if we adopt such proposals we might even see the situation where the elected may even decide to ?steal? from the vanquished!

Dr Yaw Ohemeng

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