Public sector innovation labs and the challenge of agriculture sector transformation in Nigeria

Image source: Africa Upclose @ The Wilson Centre

There is empirical evidence to show that agriculture policies in Nigeria have historically not achieved their objectives of improving productivity of the sector. Different reasons have been given for this. They include; dissonance between policy targets and the policy makers / policy process, weak linkages within the sector, issues around clarity, inadequate technical and financial support, weak monitoring and evaluation, to mention a few.

On the challenge of dissonance between policy makers and policy targets, it has been established that the absence of farmers in the design and implementation of agriculture development policies has led to policy failures. This has in turn increased the level of poverty among smallholder farmers, leading to less socio-economically resilient farming communities.

The emergence of human-centred approach to policy design

This situation has not gone unnoticed in the policy community. In response, policy entrepreneurs and other stakeholders have recommended a human-centred approach to policy design, which takes into cognisance the local context of use in the design and development of policies. Human-centred design or design thinking, provides a more bottom-up, co-creation approach, where policy makers allow insights from their immersion with the policy targets in their context to influence the policy design process. This is in stark opposition to the traditional policy design processes, which are more rational and objective-driven.

A key differentiator of the traditional policy design and design thinking approaches is that while curiosity, imagination and quick iteration drive the human-centred policy design, traditional policy design tries to authoritatively solve known problems rationally, through the process of agenda-setting, policy analysis and formulation, decision-making, policy implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

There is a need for agriculture sector productivity in Nigeria, especially within the context of changing climate conditions. My recent article highlighted the role of effective policies in promoting the transition to climate smart agriculture. This transition is important if the country is to achieve the triple benefits of sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes (especially for smallholder farmers), adapting and building resilience to climate change, and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some policy experts have recommended a design-centred approach as a solution to the problem of dissonance between policy targets and policy makers and the policy process highlighted above. This position is based on the emphasis by the human-centred policy design approach on getting the views, aspirations and experiences of policy targets during the design process.

Limitations of human-centred policy design

As important as the bottom-up, imaginative and iterative approach to human-centred policy design is, it carries some significant drawbacks. This ambiguous approach, which provides an opportunity for policy targets to influence its outcomes provides some real limitations.

The policy making process is delivered by the political structure of civil service bureaucracies. Policies are delivered at scale and significantly account for the levers of the political economy of development: politics, institutional arrangements and the empirical validation of both. These levers, which are important distribution mechanisms for policies, may not necessarily be accounted for in a bottom-up policy design process. This is a practical challenge for a design-centred approach to policy development.

A more pragmatic approach to policy design

In solving for both challenges identified: the challenge of policy dissonance with traditional policy design and the challenge of not adequately accounting for the political economy with a design-led approach, a hybrid approach may make the best of both situations. The question then is, how can this hybrid approach work? What can it look like and how can the balance of power be maintained?

Our recommendation is that public sector innovation (PSI) labs may offer an opportunity for this hybrid approach. They have become more popular, as governments across the world seek to improve the efficiency of the policy design process.

In the next article, we will be exploring the unique features of PSI labs, which make them useful tools for an optimal balance between traditional and more innovative approaches to policy design.

Obinna Igwebuike, a policy entrepreneur and management consultant lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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