In the hubbub of ministers, military officials and tourists in flowery shirts, I manage to spot Dr Nicola Virgill-Rolle – the head of national planning in the Bahamian Prime Minister’s Office.
We’re at a global summit that could only be in the Bahamas. UN experts and government officials are inside discussing climate change, sustainable development, and citizen engagement. Just out of the window, we can see tourists drinking rum, dancing and playing volleyball.
It’s a wonderful destination, but the conversation is serious: small island states face a challenging future. Climate change threatens their very existence; their economies are reliant on globalisation; and they have dispersed communities that can lack healthcare or education provision.
In the Bahamas, Virgill-Rolle overseas a new plan that’s intended to mitigate some of these problems. GovInsider caught up with her to understand how this nation is learning from governments across the world.
The need for reform
The government has faced many challenges in the past few years, she says. In 2015 and 2016, the archipelago was ravaged by serious hurricanes, causing billions of dollars worth of damage.
With a dispersed rural population, government officials can take a long time to understand the damage that these hurricanes have caused and respond.
Equally, there are day-to-day challenges: keeping citizens engaged; ensuring adequate standards of service delivery; ensuring strong rural healthcare and education.
This year, the government has decided to centralise control of these initiatives into a dedicated Delivery Unit. Inspired by similar units in governments from Britain to Colombia, the Bahamas is overhauling its structures to create greater efficiency.
Virgill-Rolle’s team will employ 10 – 15 people in the Delivery Unit “from a number of ministries with great project management skills and different types of expertise,” she says. They will also train project managers to work within key departments, who will report back to the centre of government on their progress.
The Unit will be based in the Prime Minister’s Office, which is responsible for the government’s National Development Plan. This Plan has key metrics – tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 – which the Bahamas intends to achieve. That gives the project managers concrete objectives to push for within their host departments. Meanwhile, the central Delivery Unit will track progress against a dashboard and interject when there are delays.
The project began in January, and is intended to launch officially in August. “There’s process to ensure that the political level is sensitised to the project, the public service is sensitised to what this change means, and we are looking at getting the various job descriptions and organisational structures put in place,” she says.
Learning from others
In South America, the methodology is dubbed a Centre of Government Approach, and it’s being promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Virgill-Rolle was inspired by this approach at a summit in Washington last year, and particularly how it has transformed government in Colombia.
The country had a big problem with phone theft, she says, “which sounds simple but is linked to so many security issues in their country.” The government set very precise targets for their police forces to achieve, and then measured results across the country to share success stories and find the best ways to tackle this problem. “That is an amazing story we learned from,” Virgill-Rolle says.
Tech for good
The Bahamas Delivery Unit project is also part of a bigger scheme, funded by the IDB, to improve national procurement, accounting and statistics. A dedicated IT platform is being built to support this initiative. Recently, CrimsonLogic – a Singaporean supplier – won the tender.
More broadly, tech is crucial for future development, Virgill-Rolle believes. This is particularly true for education and healthcare, which can be improved in rural areas with video conferencing and better data, she notes. The government also intends to find new ways to include rural citizens’ views in the policy making process.
Within the government, a coordinating board will pull together project feedback from across departments. IT is handled by the Ministry of Finance, but in keeping with many island states – such as Singapore – policy control is being taken on by the Prime Minister’s Office. This ensures that small nations can adapt quickly and leapfrog larger countries.
We exchange business cards and I lose Virgill-Rolle in the throng of international delegations. The annual Small Island Development States (SIDS) Summit from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is bustling and hectic, with delegates sharing success stories and discussing the new Sustainable Development Goals.
Meanwhile, I head out to the poolside, order an ice tea, and start typing up this story. Only in the Bahamas.