Wednesday, July 27, 2016
In September 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. How will

This is the third and last in a series of blogs (read the first and second blogs) that outline a path that I proposed at a UN-sponsored meeting in Switzerland this past April.


How Can Countries Make and Document Progress Toward Multi-National Sustainable Development Goals?

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) build on the progress made with regard to their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Just like the MDGs, eventually the UN will have to monitor the progress made with respect to the SDGs. While the UN has published an aggregate regional progress report, each country is expected to produce its own report. After all, what gets measured gets done!

While comparative progress reports have motivated policy makers in developing countries to action, lack of cogent, coherent guidance on implementation strategies for MDGs was one of the main reasons for uneven progress made by various member countries. If these countries have to do better with regard to SDGs, then they need to apply lessons about effective implementation of SDGs from now significant international experience in this regard.

Since countries have agreed to implement SDGs, the real issue is how to do so. The following three actions provide the necessary steps to convert SDG vision into reality.

Step 1: Develop a National Strategy for Implementing SDGs. 

Policy makers have to integrate SDGs in their national strategic plans. All goals (including 17 SDGs) and policies to achieve them should be prioritized along the following three dimensions:

a.    Level of Priority: Policies, programs and projects should be classified on the basis of their potential impact on the achievement of 17 SDG goals. Three following three categories for this purpose can be used: HIGH, MEDIUM and LOW. The basic message is that it is not wise to worry about the low priority recommendations at the cost of the high priority policies.

b.    Degree of Influence. Governments do not have the same degree of influence on all areas of public policy. In some areas all actions are within the scope of their powers. In others, they can only play a facilitating role as a catalyst. Again, the following a three-way classification can be used here: HIGH, MEDIUM and LOW. High category includes those areas of public policy which are fully within the control of the government. Medium and low imply lesser degree of influence.

c.    Sequencing. Sequencing of policies is as important as the policy itself. For example, it is advisable to allow competition and privatization only after implementing a transparent and effective regulatory framework. Also, it is advisable not to attempt everything at the same time. This again requires sequencing of various actions and programs to get the best results in the shortest possible time.

When these three dimensions are put together, the result is the matrix shown in Figure 2. This matrix is three-dimensional and thus the total number of cells is 27 (= 3 x 3 x 3). Each cell in the matrix has three attributes. For example, Cell # 1 represents high priority, high degree of influence and need to implement it in the short term.

In most cases, the classification is a matter of judgment on the part of experts and policymakers. It is not written in stone. Rather, this prioritization is indicative of the collective experience as understood by national policymakers at the time of writing the SDG implementation strategy. This matrix is, in essence, a signaling device for those charged with implementing this strategy.

All policies to achieve SDGs should be prioritized using this matrix. This classification, in turn, makes it possible to identify the core strategic policies.

Figure 2:  Matrix to Prioritize and Act on SDGs at the Country Level


Priority Goals

Step 2:  Departmental Strategies should be aligned to National Priorities for SDG Implementation

Once the national “SDG Implementation Strategy” (SIS) is in place, then government departments should formulate a Departmental SIS. Each department / agency has to ask what they can do to help implement the national SIS. They have to undertake a similar exercise as that undertaken at the national level.  

Departmental SISs should be aligned to National Priorities for SDG Implementation. They should be integrated with other departmental priorities and a comprehensive view of the departmental mandate should be taken. Again much inspiration can be drawn from Section 3 of the GPRA Modernization Act, which outlines succinctly how each agency of the US Government is required to develop four-year strategic plans. This is not an optional exercise and is a necessary condition for creating annual operating plans.

As I argued in an earlier blog, most performance measurement efforts in government are partial. They tend to focus on a project, policy or a few select government departments. Experience suggests that this piecemeal approach hardly ever succeeds. Thus, governments must ensure that the national SDG implementation strategy is an integral part of the overall departmental strategy.

Step 3: Use Implementation Agreements.   

The concept of an implementation agreement is straightforward. It is, in effect, a performance agreement between a principal and agent. It is proposed that each government department will enter into an "implementation agreement" with the head of government. In this agreement, each department will specify the goals and objectives that they wish to achieve during the fiscal year. They will also specify any specific assistance they need from the government during the relevant period to achieve their objectives. These implementation agreements will include performance indicators and target levels expected from the concerned government department.

It is proposed that each agency will assign a weight of at least 50 percent to targets that address their respective responsibilities for implementing elements of the 17 SDG goals. 

Government departments will be able to assign 50 percent of the weight to other strategic goals relevant to their departments. Table 3 gives an illustration of the relative priorities in designing the contents of these implementation agreements. Against each strategic goal, government agencies will be asked to provide specific policies, programs, projects and activities. In this blog, I do not want to go into all the details of designing them. However, it is proposed that these implementation agreements should be designed based on the relevant international experience and best practice.

The performance of each government agency will be measured against the targets for the various commitments made in the implementation agreements. It is proposed that these results should be published as part of the annual progress report on the implementation of the departmental strategy.

Table 3: Illustrative example of contents of Implementation Agreements

Relative Priorities


The proposed concept of Implementation Agreements is a new and improved version of Performance Plans / Performance Agreements under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993. If United Nations is serious about implementing Sustainable Development Goals, it must also insist that its member states convert this grand vision into ‘effective’ plans. The proposed concept of ‘Implementation Agreements’ is one such effective instrument supported by evidence from a diverse set of countries.   


These points were first presented by me in a High-level Event, held during the 2016 United Nations Evaluation Group’s Evaluation Week, titled “Evaluation Fit for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: no one left behind” on April 26, 2016, in Geneva, Switzerland.

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