Making time for better government

27th November 2012

How would you use an extra two hours a day if you had it? How would you use it if you were President? The White House Transition Project’s analysis of how American Presidents use their time during their first 100 days in office helps us answer that. One is that Presidents who employ a Chief of Staff save substantial time (an average of 54 hours over the 100 days) leading to shorter workdays and more sleep. And that’s not all. Using a Chief of Staff “does not sacrifice engagement for efficiency as presumed. It improves the President’s workday.” And when a President doesn’t have a Chief of Staff? Well, to take one example, Jimmy Carter, during his first six months in office, would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court!

It shouldn’t be surprising that efficient time use is important for busy government officials in any context; not just in the U.S. Two recent case studies by Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS) on AGI-supported reforms made by the Governments of Rwanda and Liberia illustrate this point nicely: longer Cabinet meetings don’t necessarily increase effectiveness. On the contrary, in Rwanda and Liberia critical reforms enabled significant time savings for senior government officials while also strengthening the quality of the Cabinets’ work.

The ISS case on Rwanda shows how in 2007 Cabinet meetings were sometimes taking place twice a week and lasting as long as 12 hours. Charles Murigande, who would later lead Rwanda’s new Ministry in Charge of Cabinet Affairs, labelled this “a waste of precious Cabinet time”. ISS details the impressive series of reforms that transformed things. Murigande created committees that allowed policy proposals to be analysed, debated, and revised over several stages before reaching Cabinet. He also introduced a Cabinet manual, began using annotated agendas that allowed busy ministers to focus on the most important elements of proposals and hired and trained a team of young, energetic policy analysts needed to actually execute these reforms. Policy discussions at Cabinet in Rwanda now last roughly two hours and ministers make decisions based on higher quality policy documents.

In Liberia, Cabinet meetings used to last five hours; an aide to Liberia’s former Minister of Finance echoed Rwanda’s Murigande’s criticism by calling the meetings a “significant waste of everyone’s time.” So the Cabinet Secretariat introduced several reforms that have markedly helped the situation. Advanced planning, including setting agendas, sharing policy documents well prior to meetings, as well as better tracking and follow up on action items have ensured that meetings move along smoothly. So has Cabinet Director Momo Rogers’ disciplined enforcement of time limits for each agenda item. The results have been shorter and more productive meetings. “I see a very big transformation between then and now,” says Frederick Norkeh, Liberia’s Minister for Posts and Telecommunications.

Like having a White House Chief of Staff, robust, well organized Cabinet coordination can improve decision-making in part by focusing senior government officials’ time away from things like managing tennis court schedules and onto the issues that matter most for a country.

Dan Hymowitz is AGI's Lessons Learned Advisor


Photography: oledoe