Reflections – the Cabinet Retreat

Once the President had stepped in and ‘commanded’ that cabinet ministers, their deputies and assistants would be required to attend the Cabinet Retreat, the pressure then shifted to me. I had to ensure that the request to “shut down” the government would be meaningful and beneficial to the government. I believe that there been a cabinet retreat before but it probably was just the regular gathering of ministers or their deputies showing who was closest to the President by chatting with her or whispering in their ears or laughing with her.

But this time, it had to be different. I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be about serious work. Imagine an opposition kid who had made a request for cabinet ministers to leave their ministries on a Thursday and Friday to assemble for a retreat failing to deliver in a meaningful way. It would seem like I had planned on sabotaging the government.

Well, I had some thoughts in my head and felt that the Retreat would be like nothing they had seen or experienced before.  I wanted it to be a real working session and for us to dig deeper into the development strategy and understand what it really meant. Too often, we call these documents fancy names but never really understand what they are all about because if we did, we would pay attention to the implementation of the interventions contained therein.

To do the work I needed qualified staff but due the transition of the LRDC leaving the Executive Mansion and going to the Ministry of Planning, we were short on staff. When I took over, I had an office assistant named Moses Gray and three (3) Pillar Technical Advisors (PTAs) in persons of Cllr. Arthur T. Johnson (Governance & Rule of Law); Cllr. Frederick Gbemie (Peace, Security & Reconciliation); and Amos Koffa (Economic Revitalization). Just before I came on board, William Towah had resigned and moved over to the Ministry of Public Works and so the Infrastructural & Social Services pillar was vacant. I did not have time to recruit for it before the Retreat which was just about few weeks away.

I did not even have a Secretary to do my typing. I had tried two (2) ladies from within in the Ministry of Planning: Bendu K. Bonneh and Sarah Wally but none could handle the task. Luckily for me, I had a Technical Assistant from the UN named Eric Hubbard. He was a blessing. He loved working and then he met me. We hit it off and started doing the work. Also, based on the recommendation of some friends, I recruited a lady by the name of Cleopatra Watkins-Johnson who served as my Executive Assistant. She was a gem and a God-sent. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

Anyway, Eric and I did most of the work because at that time Cllr. Johnson was doing his public defender duty and the other guys (Frederick and Amos) were doing other stuff. Now, this was an embarrassing position because Cllr. Johnson and Cllr. Gbemie were my classmates from Zion University. Now I have become their boss. What do I do? I must make sure I respect them as colleagues while at the same making sure that they performed their tasks. However, I made a promised to myself that I will never treat my friends or colleagues like subordinates because I know it is just a matter of time before the table turns. To be the boss of your friend or former classmate is just a matter of title and which side of the table you sit. Bear in mind that anyone can sit on that side and so I like to refer to them as my colleagues – because they are my colleagues despite the title of the moment.

To achieve our purpose of holding a very thorough and productive cabinet retreat, we decided that we would first hold a series of technical working sessions with all the fifteen (15) sector working groups as a part of a pre-retreat. And in these sessions, we would review all of the ‘deliverables’ under each of the sectors. The purpose of doing this was ensure that each stakeholder understood what was required by each intervention. First, do we understand what this deliverable mean? Can it be completed within the timeframe allotted? What are the resources (human and financial) required to complete this intervention? Are roles and responsibilities clear enough?

Based on the responses to these questions, we would then rework each of the ‘deliverables’ to ensure that they are clear and that all constraints were identified and measures to mitigate those constraints were also identified. To accomplish this, we spend one (1) week in the Ministry of Planning building with all the sector working groups. Eric and I had designed all the templates and scheduled all the sessions to ensure that we touched every sector and looked at every deliverable.

Usually when people tell me that “Jimmy, you seem to understand most of the issues in the country and can ably articulate them.” I am sure they may not be aware that I spend time reviewing every deliverable in the PRS and understanding the rationale for them. I sat in every working session and reviewed all the work products from each of the working groups. This gave me a good understanding of the issues and challenges in all the sectors. My advice to anyone who is interested in a career in public policy or the public sector as whole is to start at the planning function. It is like accountants who start as auditors; they do a little bit of all sectors and tend to have a broader understanding of many sectors than those who go into one sector or industry and spend their career there.

Once we completed the working sessions with all the sectors, we were then ready for the principals to review the work that their technicians had done. Unlike the Technical working which comprised of the government and development partners, the actual Retreat comprised of government officials, only. We wanted the ministers to review each deliverable and state whether they agreed with what they technicians had proposed and then to understand what their role would be in the implementation process.

Overall, we intended for each sector to come out with a revised Implementation Matrix which identified the resources and constraints and how to mitigate those constraints. We wanted each principal to appreciate what they had to do within the remaining two (2) years of implementation.

During the actual Retreat, many of the Ministers participated actively. Noticeably, Harry Greaves (late) who was considered an ‘untouchable’ at the time, sat all by himself and barely participated. Well, it was during or immediately after that Retreat that Harry Greaves was fired for something else. I don’t have the full understanding of wat it was, but I did notice this guy who would not sit in any of the groups but was there simply because Madam President had instructed that everyone be there.

Well, the working sessions were so intense and interesting that I got the attention of many participants especially in the Governance working group where Dr. Sawyer and others were. The interest in the various groups on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were intense. My friend, Col. Remmie Gray, who was then the County Development Officer (CDO) in Cape Mount took notes for this group.

The structure of the Retreat was such that Madam President came and opened the Retreat and then left. The various actors would then work in their various groups and then present their work products at the close of the Retreat on Saturday where Madam President would be present. This format made it possible that no one was showing off in front of Madam President; they had to do actual work and then present their findings.

With fingers crossed, everything went well, and Madam President came for the closing in the Church building at the Baptist Seminary. I remembered we stayed till around 9 pm that night.

As an outcome, each sector was required to present revised implementation matrix for the remaining two (2) years and then state what they would do in the next 90-days. This is where in introduced the 90-Day Action Plan. This was intended to serve as an early warning system so that we know if anything is going wrong before the actual due date. A year is comprised on four (4) 90-day cycles and so if we plan on a 90-day basis, we will be able to detect anything that is not in line and fix it before it becomes problematic.

The lesson here is that your development plan should be that important that you are ready to spend time understanding it and putting it back on track. If it is not important then I do not know what is. My friend, Dr. Alioune Sall, once told me that without a plan, we are like sailors who do not know where we are going and so we will never know the value of wind…

Author: JAMES F. KOLLIE

I am a Liberian professional with passion for pro poor economic development and grassroot political organizing. I have read public policy, corporate finance and accounting at various levels. I have worked in government, private sector and non-profit sector.

2 thoughts on “Reflections – the Cabinet Retreat”

  1. While pen and paper are being put together by the author, the reading and comprehension are being absorbed by we the readers.

    Great reflection Dr. Kollie! We awaits the next phase of this brief but worthwhile journey.

    Like

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