Last Thursday I was invited to a National Development and Planning Commission (NDPC) meeting for all the Planning and Budget Officers in the Northern Region here in Tamale. The NDPC is a national-level ministry with a mandate “to advise the President of Ghana on national development planning policy and strategy” and “to coordinate and regulate the decentralized national development planning system”. It is an interesting body, with respect to decentralization – districts are being given more independence through decentralization to create plans and budget to suit their specific needs and challenges, and yet are given the templates and timelines on how to do so from the national level through the NDPC.
I always enjoy going to these meetings – there is lots to learn about how the national level is trying to engage or support districts, a chance to reconnect with the Planners we work with across the region and get a change from sitting in front of my computer at the office. I jumped at the chance.
The meeting was a “harmonization meeting” for the district Medium Term Development Plans (MTDP is a four year development plan that each district creates and forms the long term planning structure at the district). I was soon to find out that ‘harmonization’ means lining up all the activities in ones’ MTDP to line up with national-level focus areas, thematic areas, strategies (don’t ask me what the difference between all of these are…). I could see why the NDPC in Accra would find this activity useful – if districts line up their activities and budget lines with common focus areas, then they can be aggregated at the regional level and then again at the national level. National level can then analyze where the country is spending money for development. I sighed and wondered what the value is for the district to ‘harmonize’ their plans to national level standards. I come from a very district-centric point of view and cried a little bit inside thinking about fuel and money that had brought the 40 officers to Tamale, cried for the time that could be otherwise spent at the district actually implementing these MTDPs instead of harmonizing them.
But the worst was coming… the facilitator soon put up Microsoft Word tables templates in which this harmonization would happen! Just about everyone that knows me, will know that I have a personal vendetta against Word tables. Tables are meant for Excel! Even more so in this case, the region would have to aggregate twenty district Word tables into one. And then what? How do you analyze data in a Word table? How do you add columns of budget in WORD? I moaned.
Word template for harmonization
At mid-morning break, I took some time to chat with the Regional Planning Officers that I work with and went on a small rant about the format of the templates, and questioned if they wouldn’t be better suited in an Excel format. They both nodded their heads and agreed, aggregating all the data would be much easier if it was in Excel. Together we sighed and I assumed that was the end of that discussion. I wondered how the system could start changing so that all of district, regional and national interests were designed for.
I went back to sit through the rest of the meeting, cringing at the though of all those officers filling in useless templates.
Suddenly I was tapped on my shoulder. I turned around to see one of the Regional Planners holding a USB key and excitedly telling me to quickly whip up an Excel template – maybe we could get the template changed mid-meeting. Excited I got to work and replicated the Word tables in Excel including drop down menus for the stock-answer columns to save typing and together we approached the national NDPC facilitator. To my surprise, he was supportive and saw the advantages of an Excel-based template.
I was able to present the new template to the group (speaking too quickly, as usual) and give district officers the choice of using the Excel or Word-based template. Some officers are just more comfortable in Word, and I can’t forget that, but more than half switched to the Excel template that will be a lot easier to analyze and save probably hours of work for the district and region.
I never would have guessed that a national level template would be permitted to be changed mid-meeting, but maybe decentralization is really becoming institutionalized – districts and regions are starting to push back and demand what is useful for them, versus just doing what comes down from the national pipeline. I was incredibly impressed with the district planners that were demanding my USB key with the new template before I was finished explaining; impressed with my regional level colleagues who didn’t just roll their eyes at a bad template, who turned a snack-time conversation into immediate action and had the guts to ask for a change mid-meeting; and impressed with the national NDPC facilitator who was adaptable enough to allow a new template to be introduced. Ghana civil servants really, really impressed me that day. It was inspiring.
I certainly learned that if I see something that could be changed for the better, speak up! rant a little! – and see what kind of change follows.