Origin and Meaning of ‘Best Practices’- Mechanics of evidence-based policy making

-This article was originally published by Jai Venaik in the Himalayan Times on May 27, 2018

Nepal, for the last decade, has been the hot bed of discussing future government policy and practises, prime focus of which has been accorded to the ‘federal’ way of working. A common jargon that has dominated much of the research and analysis is ‘best practises,’ but not much is accorded to the tool itself which helps diagnose these best practises for policy makers, bureaucrats, researchers or even the common public. Benchmarking is a way of determining how well a business unit, organisation or institution is performing compared with other units elsewhere. It sets an entity’s measures of its own performance in a broad context and gives it an idea of what is “best practice” for the entity. Originally borrowed from the private sector, benchmarking today is at a nascent stage of ascendency in the field of economics, new public management and public administration.

A constitutional example of how benchmarking becomes a tool for modern federal nations is clearly seen in the German Constitutions Article 91d which reads, “The Federation and the States [Länder] may, to establish and improve the performance of their administrations, conduct comparative studies and publish the results.” This essentially means that benchmarking allows comparative studies of all levels of government not only diagnostically but also as a learning and adjustment tool. In the broader sense we can understand benchmarking simply to mean the comparative measurement of performance. In the fuller or more specific sense we can understand benchmarking to mean the use of comparative performance measurement as a tool for identifying and adopting more efficient or effective practices.

The next step is possibly understanding how is benchmarking to be carried out, especially given the new constitutional and autonomous status in a federal system of governance. In literature, three general approaches can be identified: monitoring by independent agencies; coercive, top-down monitoring; and collegial benchmarking. In the first type, an independent agency or institution conducts a performance analysis and comes out with a grading (scoring or indexing) of constituent states (or local units) in a diagnostic study. Pew Centre’s Grading the States report card asses the fiscal condition, human resources management, infrastructure provision and information technology in the United States of America. Likewise, Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany publishes its findings on fiscal performance. The second type is largely an effort of the federal (or central) government to deduce analysis and prescribe measures via an internal audit or benchmarking procedure. Examples of the same include: the implementation of performance benchmarking between the Confederation and the cantons in the area of employment services in Switzerland and, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in America. In both these examples, the federal government over-rode the jurisdictional authority of lower units to fulfil a federal policy. In between these two extremes of independent and top-down monitoring is a third model: more collegial-style monitoring carried out on the basis of intergovernmental agreement and cooperation between constituent units in a federal countries. This sees participation and monitoring by all elements of government which includes independent agencies. An example of the type is the Report on Government Services (RoGS) published by the Australian Government.

Whats in for Nepal?

I agree by the above mentioned points of discussion, it does seem a supplementing tool rather than a more direct mandatory tool to be developed. It does come with bigger challenges which rests, not only in the authenticity of data used for comparative purposes but also the methodology (or indicators) used in these comparisons. For example, if I need to draw an overall picture of the state of education in the constituent states; goto indicators would be literacy rate, enrolment rate, pass rate, school attendance and others. But neither of them clearly answers if children are learning to be well-informed adults. In that respect, learning outcomes (of which no extensive research has been conducted till date) might be the indicator of choice. Hence literacy rate (and others) would never be able to answer the question, ‘which states perform better on education?’. There is a dual problem, (a) data isn’t available and, (b) analysis is formed on inconclusive methodology.

As concluded by researchers, federalism and benchmarking are enjoying a tentative, exploratory, relationship that is partly based in good faith attempts to fulfil some of federalism’s potential as a learning-oriented governance arrangement and partly reflective of long-running centralisation dynamics. Both logic and evidence suggest that best-practice oriented ‘external’ benchmarking will be very much an undersupplied good in both the public sector in general and federal systems in particular. Central governments would thus seem to have an important role to play in facilitating cooperation of that nature. Benchmarking may also offer an administratively and substantively superior alternative to more directive modes of centralised policy making in federal systems. However, there are real challenges involved in generating reliable and genuinely indicative data; in relating outputs to outcomes; to identifying and incorporating practice improvements; and in employing sanctions. The nature of those challenges places a premium on cooperative and collaborative processes.

Most countries (both federal and unitary) have relied on benchmarking to adopt practises and new learnings in public administrations to varying degrees. India’s NITI Aayog regularly uses benchmarking for comparative studies in doing business, health, education and sanitation which allows for other units to learn from the experience of others. Nepal with its vast web of governments could effectively make use of benchmarking for effective policy design.