An insider’s view on education reform (and corruption) in PNG: an interview with Peter Michael Magury

Peter Michael Magury

Peter Michael MaguryWhat does it take to implement the biggest education reform in PNG’s recent history? As Statistical Manager with PNG’s National Department of Education (NDoE), Peter Michael Magury – who currently works with the PNG National Research Institute (NRI) – is well positioned to answer this question. Peter was in the engine room of education reform as the Tuition Fee Free (TFF) policy rolled out in 2012. In a conversation with the Development Policy Centre’s Grant Walton, Peter reflected on the magnitude of the challenge that faced him and his colleagues, and some of the ways they coped with the complexity, long hours, and even offers of bribes, as they oversaw the roll-out of this large-scale policy.

One of the key challenges the NDoE faced in implementing the TFF was the short timeframe in which they needed to deliver it. As outlined here, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the policy in August 2011, which caught the NDoE by surprise – they’d been planning to increase student enrolments much more slowly. Despite this, the response was quick: by January 2012 the NDoE had released a policy outlining how the TFF would be administered.

This time pressure jolted many in the department into action. To get subsidies for enrolled students out to schools before the start of the school year, Peter and his colleagues spent long days and nights at the office. NDoE officers took turns sleeping at their desks (often without pillows or blankets), while working through the night. While Peter sorted through payments for thousands of schools across the country, he barely saw his family. Dedication of this kind is not generally associated with the PNG public service, but on this occasion many NDoE staff went to extraordinary lengths to get funding to schools.

The tight timeline made explaining the policy to key stakeholders difficult. This resulted in confusion, particularly amongst school management and parents. Peter devoted a lot of time to explaining how the payment would be calculated and how much schools should expect. Yet a number of schools failed to provide enrolment details on which the subsidy payment were to be based, making it difficult for the NDoE to get funding out to schools. Despite these challenges, according to Peter, three-quarters of all schools registered with the NDoE had their funding delivered before the start of the school year, a figure that he claims – and the NRI and ANU’s Lost Decade? report confirms – rose through the first year of implementation (2012).

With the promise of more funds and confusion about how subsidies would be calculated, some principals and school managers thought they could influence their allocation. Peter said:

There were a lot of demands coming from principals, and school’s board of management. Sometimes they wanted to get the school fee urgently. And so they would try to give you some money to speed up the process or inflate the fees, so they would get more money.

Despite this pressure Peter insists he did “not accept cash for inflating the TFF [enrolment] counts” (which would result in higher payments); however, he believes many others have been seduced by the lure of a quick kina. The revelation that subsidies worth 50 million kina were paid to ghost schools was, he believes, caused by high levels of collusion between education officials:

People in the district, and the province, they knew that those schools were closed or suspended, they still submitted the census forms to get more funds. They also knew that schools without school codes are not registered schools.

For Peter this collusion won’t be broken until the government gets serious about monitoring every level of school administration – from national education policy makers and NDoE officers, to principals at the remotest schools.

Monitoring is important, but ultimately Peter believes that the threat of mismanagement and corruption can be best addressed by one thing: honesty. Producing more honest bureaucrats, he suggests, will require more stringent recruitment processes, ethics training, and better rewards for merit-based performance.

It can also be helped along through redesigning government administrative systems.  Despite many challenges, Peter insists that the TFF policy contributed to improved accountability of school funds. When the TFF was first implemented, Peter helped set up a system for paying schools their subsidies into bank accounts – a key feature of the TFF policy (previously schools received funding through sub-national administrations). Peter argued that paying schools in this way significantly improved the management of school funds, as it cut out the potential for mismanagement through the government system.

Peter suggests that reason the TFF was initially able to deliver funding to the vast majority of schools across the country was the alignment of political goals and administrative capabilities. Peter O’Neill’s buy-in was critical in ensuring resources and maintaining momentum. The capacity of NDoE’s staff – built over a number of years – to implement these changes and communicate their importance to a range of stakeholders was also important.

While Peter is cautious about generalising beyond his experiences, his insights suggest that, for those seeking to implement such nation-changing policies, political buy-in is important but it is not enough. Such reforms require an extraordinary effort from a determined and committed bureaucracy. The bureaucracy overseeing these reforms needs to be able to ensure ‘good enough’ rather than perfect governance. When implementing a policy of this size and complexity things will go wrong, but keeping an eye on the broader objective – in this case increasing student enrolment and getting enough funding to schools on time – is crucial. In addition, the experiences of the TFF shows that big, bold policies can – given the right circumstances – be rolled out quickly and (mostly) effectively in PNG.

First-hand accounts such as Peter’s are rare but important if the policy community is to learn from what was – initially at least – one of PNG’s few good news policy stories (as highlighted here and here). In a country where there are many policy failures, it’s important to document the mechanics of success, especially given that, in the case of the TFF, some aspects of this success are being eroded.

Peter Michael Magury is a Research Fellow with the National Research Institute’s Universal Basic Education Research Program. He worked with PNG’s Department of Education from 2002 to 2013. Grant Walton is a Research Fellow with the Development Policy Centre. 

This post is republished with permission from the PNG National Research Institute Blog.

Peter Michael Magury

Peter Michael Magury is a Research Fellow with the National Research Institute’s Universal Basic Education Research Program. He worked with PNG’s Department of Education from 2002 to 2013.

Grant Walton

Grant Walton is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. He received his PhD from the University of Melbourne. His thesis compared anti-corruption actors and citizen perspectives on corruption in PNG. Over the past decade Grant has conducted research in PNG, Liberia and Afghanistan. In 2015 Grant was appointed Deputy Director of the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption, a Research Associate of the University of Birmingham’s Developmental Leadership Program, and an ANU University House Early Career Academic Fellow.

2 Comments

  • Thanks for your comments Elizabeth.

    There’s a lot to be said about the points you raise, and it would be great to see them explored further. Would you be interested in contributing some of your experiences/thoughts? We’re always looking for contributors to the blog. Feel free to email me if you’d like to discuss further, offline: grant.walton@anu.edu.au

    ANU and UPNG have been doing further research on service delivery and corruption in PNG and will be writing about our findings in the coming months. Some of what we’ll be writing on touch on the important issues you raise, but it would be great to hear from those with other experiences.

    Best,

    Grant

  • Thanks Peter and Grant – there are too few such insightful positive articles about PNG. As you both know corruption is a very complex issue in PNG and understanding the challenges facing collectivist societies which are in transition is not easy for those of us who have grown up and worked professionally in contemporary western democracies of the past 40 years. Understanding how long it took feudal societies to transition to our current Westminster system is important – and we are still by no means free of corruption – perhaps just more sophisticated about it. The Australian public service of the 60s to the 90s (of the 20th century) was also still pretty nepotistic – just ask women, Indigenous people, and people from other cultures, for a start, and people running funding programs at that time. Private companies and individuals making massive profits from prisons, unemployment, detention centres, hospitals and aged care, today, leaves some of us pretty appalled.

    It’s really important to listen to more stories like Peter tells from PNG.

    In a recent project I worked on in PNG, which aimed to inform an international donor about the service delivery reforms of the past 15 years, I think the evidence is there to suggest that change is happening and that PNG service delivery improvement is at a tipping point with strong policy foundations and strong leadership from many good leaders, politically and administratively, trying to make a difference. But still with many challenges – not the least of them being how to make a western governance system imposed on a collectivist society work; another set of complex political and public policy challenges which cannot ignore culture and social structures.

    We began exploring whether any work is being done to address incentives which encourage stronger positive actions and decisions by politicians and administrators, rather than punitive and lecturing approaches on weeding out corruption. The recent study by the NRI in 2014 on governance and service delivery improvements in PNG addressed this question and argued that a new approach to addressing corruption was needed (Reilly, Brown and Flower). The work of Ha-Joon Chang also offers other economic and political explanations for why we need to interrogate our existing understandings of what is happening in countries like PNG. The issues have implications for nation building and national identity in collectivist societies, goals which PNG is also striving to achieve. Would be good to explore this further and Dev Policy might be a good forum for doing so.

    Again many thanks – always enjoy your work Grant.

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