Implementing policy priorities a focus at workshop for health ministry officials

Health ministry officials at a workshop in South Africa in mid-October, part of the Ministerial Health Leaders Forum.

November 8, 2013 — About 40 top-level health ministry officials from seven countries gathered in Pretoria, South Africa in mid-October for a week-long program facilitated by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) aimed at helping them develop strategies to implement their top policy priorities.

The Pretoria workshop is part of the follow-up to the annual Ministerial Health Leaders Forum, which brought 14 health ministers from Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia to Harvard in June for a four-day session to boost their leadership effectiveness. The health ministers’ forum is the flagship component of the two-year-old Ministerial Leadership in Health (MLIH) Program, a joint initiative of HSPH and Harvard Kennedy School.

Ministers who came to Harvard last June were expected to identify their top policy priorities and to establish a leadership team to implement the priority. In Pretoria each team worked on developing comprehensive implementation strategies for the ministers’ key policy priorities, with guidance from HSPH faculty and other international experts about tools and approaches for planning, organizing, and managing complex projects. Priorities focused on a range of issues, including major goals such as improving maternal and child health services, as well as ways to achieve “quick wins,” such as reducing waiting times in health clinics and improving drug supply management and control.

Participants identified personnel shortages and lack of long-term funding as among the primary challenges to making sustainable health system improvements. Given the obstacles, teams were encouraged to rely more on domestic financial resources to reduce dependence on external budgetary support from international organizations and other governments.

Sir Michael Barber, a senior advisor to former U.K Prime Minister Tony Blair—who led reform of the British National Health Service and the public school system in the 1990s—told participants that one of the biggest challenges to change is motivating sometimes recalcitrant civil servants to work in teams across bureaucratic silos. Barber and his associates provided intensive coaching to each team and will continue to provide support in the future.

Of the 29 health ministers who have participated in the MLIH Program, 13 participated in the follow-up phase over the past two years. MLIH Executive Director Michael Sinclair said that these ministers have been able to make significant progress in implementing policy priorities.

Said Sinclair, “Ministers report that what they learned at Harvard has really helped them lead major health initiatives, from increasing tobacco taxes in the Philippines to ramping up the government response to HIV/AIDS in South Africa.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: Phillip Schelder

Learn more about the MLIH program