INTERVIEW: Keeping Government Priorities on Track

An interview with Elora Kokalari, Head of the Albanian Delivery Unit at the Prime Minister’s Office

Center for International Development (CID): The Albanian Delivery Unit was modelled after the UK Delivery Unit (2001-2010) under ex-PM Tony Blair. What problem was the Delivery Unit designed to solve in Albania?Elora Kokalari (EK): Edi Rama was first elected Albanian Prime Minister in 2013 with a campaign pledge “to return public order” to the country. With plans to bring Albania into the EU, he knew that extensive and tangible reforms had to be implemented. Dramatic transformation and modernization of the way the government worked would require complex and demanding changes.

Previously, decision-makers were not able to detect problems, anticipate choke points or keep projects on track. Furthermore, progress was often based on the percentage of funds disbursed and spent rather than on outcomes delivered. In part due to ineffective monitoring systems and limited capacities for implementation, some government projects moved slowly. No one understood the root causes of this slowdown and was able to solve implementation issues.

The emphasis of the Delivery Unit was not on telling people what to do, but on working together to solve problems and get results. It could channel energy and resources to develop high-quality personal relationships among a wide range of stakeholders, from ministers, down to field workers who drove land excavators.

In October 2013, Prime Minister Rama announced that he would set up a Delivery Unit in Albania: “I strongly believe that getting this right means you need a combination of the rational and the inspirational. The rational is making sure you set up an effective delivery system. The inspirational part is making the case of why this is important: doing delivery well means improving education, health care, and all government services for the people.”

CID: What are the main pillars of the Delivery Unit in Albania, and how are they different (if at all) from the ones of the Delivery Units in other countries? Did the context of it being in Albania specifically play a role in shaping these pillars?

EK: With an ambitious agenda for change in mind, Prime Minister Rama turned to a British government innovation for inspiration: a Delivery Unit. Originating in the UK under Tony Blair’s Government in 2001, Delivery Units are small teams that help leaders to stay focused on the delivery of key policy priorities. While the units vary from one country to another, they generally track progress of top priorities and report on performance data. They also intervene to solve problems when progress goes off track.

In Albania, the unit was relatively small, composed of one head, four coordinators and two business analysts. Matter-of-factness instead of fanciness was the label of its business. There was no multi-functional computer software, just simple spreadsheets, intensive stakeholder collaboration and thorough data analysis.

The Prime Minister established a communications strategy that would keep the Delivery Unit behind-the-scenes. It would have a low public profile but high internal influence. This plan would shield the Delivery Unit from public pressure and allow it to keep its focus on pushing the priorities forward. In addition, every achievement would be attributed to the lead minister, instead of the team. This soothed the tension and drove cooperation further.

Different from the original Tony Blair DU, the Albanian unit was structured within the civil servant organization framework of the Prime Minister’s Office. Authority was provided both by the Secretary General as well as the Prime Minister and his political cabinet. Such positioning carried particular difficulties during the initial stage of establishing the unit, which were overcome through time with frequent exposure and support by PM himself.

CID: What were the key priorities that the Delivery Unit was pressing forward in the first government term? How were these priorities decided?

EK: The Albanian Cabinet held two strategic retreats and decided on the following initial overarching priorities: improve drainage irrigation and coverage; improve performance of the electricity distributor; create more efficient and transparent government administration; improve the government revenues through reform of tax and customs; advance the level of investment by international companies into Albania; improve land registration.

CID: How did the Delivery Unit help various ministries and agencies advance these priorities more specifically?

EK: Narrowing down the final five priorities, and turning them into actionable plans with clearly defined results that could be tracked and monitored, was something new to Albania’s administration. The Delivery Unit would prove to be a different entity that would reside outside the entrenched line-management hierarchy to develop systems and an evidence-based approach to policy implementation. The types of data-tracking systems, delivery plans and performance metrics required by the Delivery Unit were resource-intensive and required a distinct culture shift within the government. A great deal of time was spent engaging with teams to get them on board to determine viable outcomes.

Prior to the full operation of the Delivery Unit, none of the government priority areas had sufficient funds to meet targets. With the advent of the Delivery Unit, ministries developed targets and goals and then they could get their allocation of funds according to their plans. The Delivery Unit scrutinized every penny to ensure that citizens would be the beneficiaries of the respective services. In turn, ministries would have adequate resources to deliver on their policies.

The emphasis in the Delivery Unit was not on telling people what to do, but on working together to solve problems and get results. It could channel energy and resources to develop high-quality personal relationships among a wide range of stakeholders, from ministers down to field workers who drove land excavators.

CID: What was the role of the “Delivery Agreements”? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

EK: The team drafted Delivery Agreements, which were regarded as a powerful means to push implementation. Each priority area had to devise its own Delivery Agreement. These documents were considered compacts that the relevant ministries made with the Prime Minister’s office to ensure focus of all stakeholders. Each Delivery Agreement enumerated such elements as key ambitions, performance indicators, a set of specific activities, and a formula for measuring progress. They represented a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” and served as a moral incentive to compel performance toward agreed-upon targets.

Goals could not be determined without full buy-in from the main stakeholders involved in any priority area. From the start, agreeing on goals was essential before even getting off the starting blocks to affect change.

At first, ministers were not happy when we introduced action trackers. They did not initially like the idea of having their performance monitored and graded. But refusal was not an option.

Delivery Agreements design an agreed path moving forward, serving as guiding lights for the entire three-year delivery process. If understood this way, they become the foundation upon which ministers and their team should drive their work forward. However, when targets are assigned three years in advance, they often don’t take into account various unanticipated environmental factors, which could have a political or economic impact. As such, Delivery Agreements, although setting a three-year path, should be reviewed at least once a year, in order to take such factors into account and thereby provide some flexibility in terms of targets. 

CID: What do you consider to be the greatest successes in the first term, and what key role more specifically did the Delivery Unit play in creating this success?

EK: The Delivery Unit offered a foundation for setting long-term priorities and aligning governmental resources behind them. Government officials care about their respective issues, which means that even as ministers come and go, the relevant departments can continue to focus attention and resources in more a strategic and performance-driven manner.

More profoundly, the approach helped to make civil servants and ministers feel directly accountable for delivery. Ministers accept that delivery is a major part of their job, and not just an add-on to policy formulation and legislation. It has also gotten the Government to become increasingly serious about evaluation, transparency, and measurement.

The whole process of working in collaboration with the Delivery Unit has imbued a set of new routines. Departments can target delivery of specific outcomes regardless of political changes and day-to-day demands. It gives them a long-term focus.

CID: An important role of the Delivery Unit is to help government agencies translate priorities into clear goals and detailed action plans that can be monitored. Such approach works best with problems that are linear in nature. But in reality these were complex problems to fix and it probably took many iterations and much learning-by-doing, both by the Delivery Unit and by the involved agencies. With this in mind, did the idea of how a Delivery Unit could function in the Albanian context change over the course of the experience?

EK: As Prime Minister Rama and his cabinet were organizing for the second mandate, the Delivery Unit was assessed as key to assuring success. As such, understanding and learning from past experience, the Unit was removed from the civil servant organizational structure and positioned within the Prime Minister’s cabinet office, empowering it with further authority while working with priorities’ political appointees. In addition, in order to increase efficiency in delivery, the Prime Minister assigned deputy ministers as leaders of priorities, without removing the political responsibility of the Minister assigned to cover that sector. 

With experience, expectations by the PM and his cabinet grew, therefore additional staff was assigned in order to have full coverage of all priorities.

CID: What did you learn about balancing detailed plans upfront with the need for learning-by-doing?

EK: The Unit served as the facilitator, problem-solver, and conduit of information for leaders to make informed decisions. It relied on implementing partners for technical skills, but unless the Delivery Unit had a solid understanding of the reform, it could not perform its job effectively.

While the Delivery Unit staff were not technical experts in the fields they were tracking, they had national and international experience relevant to the management and analytical skills required. That meant that the learning process of data gathering and analysis were a must prior to drafting delivery plans with stakeholders.

CID: Do these lessons change the way you view the Delivery Unit in this government mandate? For example, since it often took a year or more to come up with the plans (which had to be flexible anyway), would you start differently by instead identifying strategic entry points and looking to build up the plan as you learn and take small steps? 

EK: When managing implementation of various priorities, one has to often combine different options when planning and delivering. Long-term high level plans are a must in determining objectives and the stepping stones to achieve them. This is usually the case for those areas where the solution is embedded prior to DU taking over, or relies on historical knowledge and practice. Such was the case of irrigation and drainage or energy. Plans and targets did not change much, if at all over time. To tackle innovative good governance on the other hand, which encompassed the reform on public services, a notion completely foreign to the Albanian Government and the people, the teams needed to learn and progressively adapt, making planning and management of this particular priority more agile. 

CID: How did the Delivery Unit deal with cases where the agencies in charge of the reform lacked the necessary skills and capacities to advance the reforms in spite of good intentions?

EK: Overall, agencies had a good will to cooperate. Some took longer than others in understanding the DU methodology, often misunderstanding the role of leadership and there were others that did provide signs of resistance to change or monitoring.

There is no question that agencies are always knowledge owners of the particular area under their responsibility. Yet often times we found profound technical knowledge, often perfect in identifying issues and even solutions, but no business approach linked to it.

Clarifying information categories, work processes, indicators, targets, plans and establishing a healthy ground where upon teams could make suggestions and see them turn into reality, approved and funded, was the main role of DU as a capacity supplier.

CID: In his second term, Prime Minister Rama decided to renew the mandate of the Delivery Unit. What are the most important lessons learned from the first mandate? What would you do just the same, and what is changing?

EK: The progress made in the Albania Delivery Unit was a result of some important parameters   

  • High-level political support: The personal role and support of the Prime Minister has been central to accelerating delivery efforts on key priorities, removing blockages to delivery, and resolving challenges, particularly ones that involve cooperation across government agencies and ministries.
  • Scope of work: The Delivery Unit has had a clearly defined mandate and has been responsible for tracking a delineated set of priorities. It has had no competing responsibilities. Each priority needs to be well defined in terms of outcome objectives, placing emphasis on end results and impact on citizens.
  • Staffing: The Delivery Unit has had no top-down heavy organizational structure that constrained day-to-day operations or created a bureaucracy of its own. While the Delivery Unit staff were not technical experts in the fields they were tracking, previous management experience and analytical skills were required.
  • Strong Policy: Success depended on a comprehensive and well-designed policy and strategy approved to work on the priority program. Without such a foundation and clear framework, the implementation phase would drive the program off-course.
  • Constant review: A critical factor for the Delivery Unit has been its ability to review its own effectiveness of its operations on a regular basis and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Investments in people: Investing in building capacities of the delivery partners has been a continuous effort and requires time and resources to close gaps.
  • Accountability: Accountability has been enhanced by developing a set of tools that are used to update decision makers on a regular basis. These tools include Delivery Agreements, scorecards, and monthly dashboards.

 

To read more about the performance of the Delivery Unit in the period 2014-2017, have a look at this recent case study

 

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About Elora Kokalari

 

Elora Kokalari has been serving as the Head of Delivery Unit at the Prime Minister’s Office since November 2017, in charge of driving and deliverying on five goverelora kokalarinment priorities as approved by the current government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Rama.

Previously, she served as the coordinator of Good Governance priority, under which she ensured delivery of the reform on Public Services (one of five EU integration priorities for the country). She was in charge of facilitating, unblocking and monitoring delivery of the public services reform undertaken by the government, which placed Albania as leader of the Western Balkan region in service delivery, according the SIGMA EU Report 2017. Previously, in Albania she has held the position of Business Development and Marketing Manager at Barleti University and the largest IT solution company in the country, whereby she has managed various development projects and marketing campaigns. In the United States, she has worked in the education sector as well as for the second largest logistics company in North America.

She is a professional who brings ideas and innovative solutions, specialized in: building strategies targeted towards business growth and improvement; developing fact-based, hypothesis-driven, creative, insightful and robust policy recommendations; building teams of experts and leading them throughout the lifespan of a project; and managing and facilitating stakeholder relationships.

She holds a degree in Business Administration, double concentration in International Business and Marketing Management from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

She is passionate about her work and believes that if a government respects its citizens and treats them genuinely as customers instead of just taxpayers and voters, community life will improve dramatically for future generations.