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The Partner Government
However inclusive and participatory public policy may be, it remains the ultimate and legitimate responsibility of the incumbent government, at least in electoral democracies, where it constitutes the main means to carry out the political programme for which a given political party or coalition was elected, as well the basis for accountability towards their constituency. Hence, the political importance and sensitivity of policy evaluation, as it will determine the success or failure of those initiatives that have been championed by the elected representatives. In reality, their room for manoeuvre is rather limited due to the variety of actors and factors at play during policy design and implementation.
To begin with, any newly elected government will find itself running a State apparatus that is extremely complex and that obeys its own rules, constraints and institutional inertia. Every politician with government experience will be painfully familiar with the principal- agent dilemma and will have most certainly undergone the hardships of steering more or less effective bureaucracies towards the ultimate goals of her party’s political programme.
In most countries, Public Administration is characterised for a high level of path dependency –which is not necessarily bad, as it ensures a reasonable degree of stability– and remains subject to the obligations and commitments stemming from the previous governments. Just to give an idea of the limited levels of discretion of policy-makers, in most cases only between 5% and 7% of the State budget is available for new policies, the remaining part being already earmarked for other non-discretionary expenditures such as pensions, foreign debt, previous investments, etc.
On top of this, the executive branch is not alone in giving shape to public policy. Parliament plays a crucial role through its standing committees and, more importantly, through its budgetary powers, while the Judiciary is instrumental in ensuring compliance and determining the extent of reforms when they clash with other rights. Even if one would only want to focus on the executive, the sheer number of concerned agencies and management bodies spread across different territorial levels in any policy field puts into question the effectiveness of any dialogue initiative that sticks to the traditional hierarchical approach. Indeed, with the change of paradigm towards a network approach, governments are now seen as playing the role of “orchestrators”, “modulators” and “activators” or as “catalysts”, “mandaters”, “endorsers”, “facilitators” and “partners”.
The above-mentioned intricacies show that making policy dialogue more inclusive and participatory is not only a matter of fairness but of outright effectiveness, as the proper implementation of any policy reform stemming from such dialogue will need, sooner or later, the endorsement and buy-in of the key stakeholders involved in its implementation. Thus the importance of using policy dialogue as an opportunity to promote a whole-of- government approach that avoids overlaps and inconsistencies and that results in a coherent set of actions. In other words, policy dialogue can pave the way for the sort of overarching and comprehensive strategies that are crucial for the success of policy implementation.
Beyond strategic concerns, enlarging the base of governmental actors to be engaged in donor-sponsored policy dialogue has also tactical advantages, as it makes it easier to identify those officials that can act as champions of reform within the public administration. Actually, moving beyond an overly simplistic and monolithic vision of government is the first step towards unlocking the black box of “political will”, that catch-all expression that pretends to justify all sorts of policy failures without really delving into the root-causes and the internal political economy of public actors.
Besides, this realization about the multiplicity of interests and actors at play within the government is especially important to overcome entrenched adversarial attitudes that some civil society activists might have. Prejudices and preconceived notions about the public sector can easily change as soon as stakeholders come across public officials that are also willing to push for reforms, despite the indifference of their hierarchies. Identifying such allies and potential drivers of change are instrumental for the success of policy dialogue, as in many cases these officials are welcoming external pressure to unlock internal bottlenecks and overcome the sort of passive resistance that prevents change from taking place.
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