Playing with live ammo – reflections on the MPP policy simulation

Ruth Canagarajah, MPP 2014 – 2015

Of the many strengths of the Cambridge MPP programme includes the ability and resources to simulate real-world policy issues, sometimes with the professional feedback of those who know the issues best.

In the week of May 18, 2015, the MPP students had a crash-learning course with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Kosovo for a one-week Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE). The aim of the PAE is to harness the arsenal of policy analysis tools learned throughout the year and apply it to a concrete problem. The problem in this case was how to help Kosovo’s 38 municipalities make the most effective use of a highly limited municipal budget in an environment of fiscal austerity, all the while creating space for innovation and transformation despite competing demands.

The resources to confer with were many: official UN Kosovo papers, background documents and expert knowledge that was essentially on-call throughout the week. Speakers from the IMF, OSCE, the World Bank and other institutions all gave their time and expertise to ensure we had sufficient knowledge to frame and discuss the issue.

Over the week, teams researched and created policy proposals for UNDP Kosovo, ranging from public-private partnerships to systematic engagement with diaspora. At the end of the week, the proposals were presented to Andrew Russell (the UN Development Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Kosovo), who judged the final outputs to identify the most practical and implementable solution.

All policies were analyzed through the lenses of direct savings, political salability, ease of implementation, improved competitiveness, and ability for all to exploit. The winning team (Chris Holder Ross, Lizzie Presser, Andy Parker, and myself) focused on the importance of improving municipal property tax collection. Currently, 30% of existing property in Kosovo is unregistered, and only around 40% of residents pay property taxes. Key challenges in the existing system included the currently high rate of non-payment (with a payment rate of 45%) and the difficulties in maintaining accurate records of policy. This is significant because 30% of municipalities’ own source revenue comes through property taxes.

We recommended immediately contracting with a GIS Service Provider to use satellite maps and other data to ensure that all properties and roads were identified, then classified and assigned a unique identification number. Such data would allow municipalities to apply a standard policy of tax collection across the area and ensure equitable contributions for municipal services. To do this affordably, we recommended recruiting local valuation officers, and training them to perform identification as well. Alongside our other policies to roll out e-procurement processes as well as enabling municipalities to share services among them, our analysis found that the short-term strategy of improving property tax collection offered the most robust policy option to manage municipal budgetary demands.

While the MPP class ironically refers to these crash policy exercises as “one week to save a country”, there is no substituting for face-to-face interactions with UNDP experts, extensive and sustained reflections on the dilemmas of policy-practice tensions, and the resources to encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking. Sometimes you need to play with live ammo to really bring the learning home.

The view from the UNDP Kosovo team was also written up as a blog, available here.

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