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A Path for Many Small Steps Forward

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28 May 2010

Vietnam Scene

The Vietnamese government wants to include capacity development in their socio-economic planning. But what does that mean? Nils Boesen, who facilitated a recent in-country event, reports.

At a recent five-day learning event in Hanoi, participants explored the ramifications and implications of incorporating capacity development (CD) in their socio-economic planning. Organised by the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), the event was held under the auspices of Train4Dev and LenCD, with support from the European Commission.

The event, which ran from the 10-14 May, sought to define a framework for CD in the public sector and a road map for integrating CD in sector plans and policies, including in the new Social and Economic Development Plan (SEDP) 2011-2015. The point of departure for the interest of the Vietnamese authorities was the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action, both of which emphasise the importance of CD for aid effectiveness.

A CD concept – and four key questions

The event suggested a practical understanding of CD as processes that enhance capacity to efficiently deliver better services/products, and to have better relations to others. The processes can focus on individual, organisational or systemic level – and to deliver on better services, efforts would usually be required at all levels.

Vietnam Training Event

It also highlighted that capacity development is an integral part of good development planning and management – not a separate issue. The challenge is to integrate is not only in planning, but also in the daily behaviour of managers in particular, and of staff in general. There may well be a need for separate, particular CD processes (and therefore plans for these processes), but capacity issues as such should be addressed as part of the “chain” that achieve outcomes and targets by strengthening the capacity to deliver relevant services effectively and efficiently.

But though this is a useful – and mainstream – understanding, it does not answer the trickier questions when it comes to strengthening the public sector in Vietnam across sectors and levels:

• Capacity for what? How much better products, services, relations – quality, quantity, relevance? How and by whom should targets be defined?

• Enhancing which capacity? Should an approach address all aspects, go – initially – for the easy wins only, and/or address root and systemic problems that other initiatives have attempted to address?

Terracing in Vietnam

• How to enhance capacity? Should an approach build on strengths and/or addressing gaps? To what degree should it aim at increasing the cost of poor performance and/or reward good? Should it mainly look at the “supply-side”, focusing on what actors can do inside their organisations, or also work on the demand-side, involving citizens, oversight bodies etc

• Who should lead, and with which means? Should CD be sought enforced and steered from the top, and/or be a process seeking to stimulate bottom-up initiatives?

Early in the event it became clear that while the concept of CD is maybe new, CD is already ongoing and not something that would only be addressed as a response to the aid effectiveness agenda. Vietnam has an ambitious Public Administration Reform programme running, in place for the last 10 years, as well as other initiatives including devolution, simplification of rules and regulations, and an anti-corruption drive. These different initiatives have had different degrees of success and impact – but they all address systemic capacity issues across the public sector.

Before addressing how CD could be integrated in national and sector planning frameworks it was therefore important to clarify whether CD would best be seen as an overarching effort integrating the various ongoing efforts – or whether it would at this point in time be more relevant to look at CD as a possible complementary effort to the other ongoing activities.

Coherence, coordination, complementarity – how much of each?

Vietnam has made incredible and impressive progress over the last 25 years. The economic growth has fuelled an unprecedented reduction in poverty level. The public sector has developed as well – but is clearly facing numerous constraints in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, as well as transparency. Among the constraints are weak incentives to coordinate across units, agencies and ministries – a phenomenon also visible in the different attempt to enhance capacity across the public sector.

A realistic answer to the CD challenges should not assume a capacity for coherence and coordination across agencies beyond what is actually there. This assessment of “change capacity” or “capacity for CD” was basic in trying to shape proposals for how to energise the attention to capacity issues, both in planning processes and in later implementation.

A modest approach

Departing from the particular vantage point of the Ministry of Planning and Investment – and the link to development partners – the learning event ended up recommending a modest, incremental approach that would supplement other ongoing initiatives, but not attempt to create a more comprehensive, coordinated and coherent initiative.

This would include getting capacity issues – and capacity development initiatives – into sector, province, district and unit plans, again with a modest approach seeking to identify incremental improvements that do not pretend to solve the deeper rooted systemic constraints. The basic analysis was that addressing the wider incentive issues would require a much more decisive and powerful push than what the MPI would be able to muster on its own – but that there were, nonetheless, significant room for making small improvements in capacity that could lead to visible improvements in service delivery, regulation, service orientation and relations with citizens.

Should the MPI wish to pursue such a path, it would require the development of guidance to managers at all levels about how to implement small bottom-up improvements using a positive, inclusive and participatory approach. The approach could incentivize concrete, small improvements through competitions, fairs, web-based exchanges and learning – much as such tools are used elsewhere to stimulate change.

Finding the path rather than bringing the road map

The learning event was useful in bringing CD down to earth – particularly in the sense that a CD framework is about finding a good fit to the drivers of and constraints to change, rather than implant a pre-defined scheme on the landscape. In the case of Vietnam, this seems to imply that the time is not ripe for big pushes or big schemes. Meanwhile, there seems to be room for a lot of practical, small steps that do not aim at transforming the public sector, but at enhancing it whenever there is an opportunity to do so. And, who knows, one day this might actually be seen with hindsight as the beginning of a transformation that happened, even if it was never planned!


DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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