Study Tours, Policy Implementation and Necessary Context

By Julian Dierkes

Over the years I have been – mostly peripherally, though not for lack of trying – involved in various attempts to describe good practices from other countries to Mongolian policy makers in the hopes of seeing elements of it adopted in Mongolia.

The amount of learning among Mongolians has been amazing, especially considering the on-going hurdle that staff turn-over linked to the lack of independence of the bureaucracy represents.

For example, it seems fair to me to say that Mongolia is an example of a generation of emerging resource economies that is well-aware of the dangers that rapid development of non-renewables might bring with it. Sometimes it seems like all the attention to various aspects of the “resource curse” is overwhelming attention to even more fundamental necessities like an independent civil service, for example, or the fight against corruption.

Policies Failing in Implementation

All the attention to international best practice seems to have brought many well-intentioned and up-to-date plans, agendas, strategic plans, etc. with it, but in observing all of these plans, it is obvious that many of them fail because of a lack of implementation. Often, there seems to be a disconnect between the strategic planning, legislation and the actual resourcing and implementation of these plans and laws. This is something that Mendee wrote about in his 2015 series on policy failures already.

Over the years we have hosted many government delegations at UBC on study tours.

It is very noticeable that these tours have become more and more professional over the years. While early tours (around 2010) still always ran a risk of a significant number of participants not showing up, over the past several years, these tours have been taken much more seriously by participants. This has to be something that the organizations that fund such tours are pleased with. I do recognize that much can be learned on such tours. The fact that Mongolian policy-makers are entirely conversant with many policy paradigms that have been developed in OECD countries over some decades attests to the impact that such study tours can have as an element in the sharing of good practices.

However, I also wonder about some aspects of these tours.

(Budget) Scale

Much of today’s discussions, hosted by UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, focused on the British Columbia context, in large part because forestry management is largely practiced at the provincial level. And that is a useful context to Mongolian policy-makers, I think. Mongolia is 1 1/2 times as large as BC (1.5m sqkm vs 940k sqkm) and BC’s population is 1 1/2 times as large as Mongolia’s (4.6m vs 3m). Obviously, BC has much more forest than Mongolia as forested areas are restricted to the North and West of Mongolia whereas almost all of BC is forested. On the whole, some comparisons between Mongolia and BC thus seem useful.

However, there are some elements to policy-making and, more importantly, perhaps, policy-implementation that are VERY different between BC and Mongolia. These were evident in presentations that were made to the Mongolian delegation (consisting of four MPs, including the Min of Environment and Tourism, and forestry professionals).

Take a different scale then geographic area and population, i.e. finances. The dean of the Faculty of Forestry, John Innes, talked in some detail about the changes that forestry is undergoing as a discipline, as an industry, and as a policy field. Fascinating because I am much more familiar with the changes the mining industry is undergoing and there seem to be many parallels. For example, “social license” or “sustainability” terminology as it comes up and the notion of a field/industry really undergoing a major transformation. Of course, forestry remains focused on a renewable resource unlike mining. This all struck me as potentially very useful to a Mongolian delegation.

John Innes also highlighted some of the research and projects housed in his faculty. He noted, for example, that the Faculty of Forestry acquired around $11m in funding last year (I forget the exact figure, I guess I should have taken a photo of the slide like so many people are doing now). In discussions during the break, I learned that the budget for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is on the order of $30m!

In another presentation, on fire management in BC, we learned that the province spent roughly $500m on fire fighting last year (an unusually active year, but on the scale of what we may be seeing regularly in the future). That is not the budget of the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, just emergency fire-fighting. Last year’s fire-fighting budget thus represents something like two decades’ worth of cumulative budgets for Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

When financial means are thus on different orders of magnitude, what chance does knowledge that is gained have of being implemented on return of a study tour?

Would More Context Enable More Implementable Knowledge?

As I was listening to presentations, I was trying to think of a way to make these presentations more praxis-oriented for the participants in the study tour. This particular study tour is actually quite applied in all the terrific meetings that have been set up, but is the knowledge applicable?

All the research that is done at UBC’s faculty of forestry and contributes to the development of the field as well as of policy, happens in an elaborate context of higher education, provincial and federal research funding, recognition of the contributions and perspectives of academia, but also of industry, civil society and the media. There is an entire system of high-level stakeholders in this that does not exist in the same way in Mongolia.

Take universities as an example that I know well. UBC operates in a very different way from the national universities in Mongolia. Yes, as a provincial university we have a strong mandate to educate the BC population. But there is also an expectation from the BC population that we do basic and applied research that will ultimately, sometimes more, sometimes less directly, benefit the province (and often also the country and the world). Funding and governance systems have thus been designed to enable independent research. On the whole, faculty (associate and full professors) cannot be fired for the type of research they do or the conclusions they reach. Note that I have written about this in making the case for why Mongolian readers might be interested in my writings on this blog.

Research funding in turn relies on peer review and other quality-of-research indicators to distribute funding from the federal government in particular in an independent manner. The federal government is aware that it may be funding research that directly examines government policies and thus might find that these are not working, for example. This might even benefit an opposition party in the next election. But, the system of research funding has been created to ensure independence for research because there is a consensus that, ultimately, Canada and British Columbia will benefit.

All of this could be outlined in a 30min presentation on higher education/research funding, for example. After such a presentation, a study tour might think differently about a piece of information like the annual amount of research funding acquired by a faculty at UBC.

But context would also be useful in the other direction. It was only in a response to the 2nd or 3rd presentation that the Minister mentioned that they are looking especially to build industry capacity. Some presentations could have focused more on that, if that’s what the delegation was looking for.


I imagine that many development professionals plan to provide similar context for study tours. Yet, listening to the presentation was a good reminder to me that the implementation of policy may well depend on a whole system of support mechanisms, including independent voices that comment on proposed policy. Perhaps, some populations, including Mongolians, would be better-served if these fundamental/systemic challenges were addressed before specific solutions are adopted in the form of un-implemented strategic plans.

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One Response to Study Tours, Policy Implementation and Necessary Context

  1. Ivan Somlai says:

    Thanks for your provocative insights! Allow me to complement some of your thoughts.

    A. Staff turnover is an aspect not only of bureaucracy?s independence, but as well of the ability of any returning individual to be able to apply newly acquired knowledge and skills. Individuals returning from authorized foreign exposure of any type should, in the first place, be sent only if on return they would be given scope to use newly learned knowledge and skills. It has often happened that returnees?not only bureaucrats, but well-intentioned politicians too?arrive home with more knowledge and skills than their peers and, at times, their superiors.

    Briefly, from my experience in scores of similar programmes globally, successful programmes obligated people dispatched for training to agree that a) they would share the information from their experience back home; b) given the opportunity, they would adapt and apply the?or some?of the new knowledge and skills relevant to their positions; and c) that the ?system? would actually provide opportunities for their practicing and imparting relevant knowledge and skills. These 3 elements are in most cases unaddressed.

    B. Some issues with weak implementation arise not simply from inability or lack of knowledge; they come about from insistence on (sorry folks!?foreign-inspired) 5-year RBM methodology. This system obligates a linear mindset in a current world of more frequent and, at times more radical and unexpected changes requiring flexible and agile responses unfettered by outdated processes. Rigid planning systems in today?s faster transitioning societies must be loosened to allow for adjustments to unforeseen events.

    C. Most international trainings inherently understand that participant from abroad would take what has been learned and adapt it?if desired and permitted?to their own contexts in a manner befitting their own processes?which may or may not converge with policy-making or implementation approaches common to other countries.

    D. Numbers and dollars, per se, are in many ways an inaccurate way of comparison with poorer countries. Our Canadian dollar figures must be understood relative to the budgets from which these are gleaned, as well as relative to the purchasing power. I would agree, though, that improved monitoring and enforcement would contribute to more effective use of available funds. Even in Canada fire fighting costs have been over the allotted budgets; therefore in such cases the government must revise particular priorities and move funds to accommodate the unforecasted urgencies.

    E. Your points of caution are well taken. To look at this just-completed training systemically, it should be noted that this programme undertaken by the recent visitors from Mongolia was planned for a year. Having presented to the Mongolian side a statement of our capabilities in British Columbia, the Mongolian side replied with a summary of their immediate needs. This summary was iteratively adjusted and finessed by both sides: technical specialists in the REDD+ and forestry programmes as well as politicians in Mongolia; myself and collaborating academic and scientific experts of UBC, NRCAN and others in Canada. After some compromises had to be made because of the time limitations and/or the availability of experts during the popular vacation time, the final agenda was confirmed.

    During the programme, much discussion took place about adaptability of ideas from BC to Mongolia; various processes that may optimize take up of new initiatives; and assurance of continuing support to the extent possible. At the very least we had agreed to sustain communication and proactively look for further collaborative opportunities. Within a month of the conclusion, correspondence indicates that serious consideration is already being made for the adaptability and adoption to the local context of various ideas from our programme. Certainly some ideas could be earlier implemented than others; even in Canada, bureaucracy and political imperatives can derail, advance and/or modify new initiatives.

    It need also be brought to attention that on the Canadian side, all interlocutors?UBC, NRCAN, Ministry, Community and Research Forest management, urban Ecology Society?admittedly learned much from the presentations and discussions with our Mongolian colleagues. One can never know when an idea from another can spark revelations!

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