Mr. Scheibel is a technical associate with Management Systems International (MSI), an international development firm that works to strengthen public administration, governance and service delivery in the Middle East.
The invasion of northwestern Iraq by the Sunni-extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and the subsequent mobilization of Shia militias mark the latest challenge in Iraq's ongoing struggle to forge long-term stability. The primary driver of this crisis is not stagnating socioeconomic development or an acute lack of services, prominent issues in other countries in the region. Rather, it is a sectarian divide widened by political jockeying over national power sharing, and executive-level provocation of Iraq's Sunnis through opaque arrest campaigns and heavy-handed dispersals of protests. While ISIL's incursion reflects a confluence of political deficiencies and security fragility, the long-term solution to these challenges cannot be similarly confined to immediate military or political remedies. The government will not recover without undertaking steps towards reconciliation, through inclusive reforms, as well as maintaining and improving functionality for all of its citizens.
Over recent years, Iraq's structures of civilian governance have made notable progress despite violence and political abuses. This progress, largely outside of the political sphere, is evident in the realms of public policy, public investment and service delivery. In times of political crisis, the demand for equitable, citizen-oriented reform becomes intrinsic across political lines as pressing issues create new alignments and with them seeds for reconciliation. This is not to say that Iraq cannot descend into a rapid downward spiral, as Syria has. However, Iraq's story is not over even in the worst scenarios, and any meaningful solutions on the table will include fostering inclusive governance and promoting reconciliation. This paper explores the dynamics of another of Iraq's recent domestic crises and the opportunities that emerged from it.
DEVELOPMENT OF PUBLIC POLICY
Iraq's "Day of Rage" commenced on February 25, 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring. Some Iraqis initially thought it might topple the Maliki government, as Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali had fallen before it. In the eight years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq had emerged from the shadow of the despot, but citizens remained dissatisfied with the pace of improvement, public-service delivery, and lack of reform in the political process. The Arab Spring did impel some crowds into the streets of Baghdad, the provinces and Iraqi Kurdistan; and the government responded, but without the iron fist of Assad in Syria or Gadhafi in Libya. Iraq's protests were smaller and tightly contained. Publically, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki made his 100-days speech on February 27, 2011, promising improved services. He vowed to relieve ministers of their posts if their institutions lagged on the job. He also promised to not seek a third term as prime minister in the 2014 elections, a pledge he notably reneged on in 2014. These moves contributed to the easing of the public ardor for revolution. Behind the Iraqi government's doors, however, the Arab Spring helped align varied interests and contributed to a significant change — the establishment of Iraq's first inclusive public-policy mechanisms.
What follows is an exploration of Iraq's recent public-policy efforts, particularly in relation to the last of the U.S. government's major public-sector reconstruction efforts: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Iraq Administrative Reform Project (Tarabot, meaning "linkages" in Arabic) and specifically its efforts to assist the government of Iraq (GoI) to establish and engage in the development of participatory public policy. Tarabot began in June 2011, the successor to the $340 million USAID-funded National Capacity Development Project (Tatweer, or "development" in Arabic), initiated in 2006.
First, a bit of background on Tatweer. It contributed to the foundation from which Iraq's policy-making mechanisms would later emerge:
• It supported 120 Iraqi scholars for overseas Master of Public Policy (MPP) and Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs in the region. Iraq had no higher education institutions offering courses of study in these fields, nor was the field even formally recognized until recently. Upon graduating, almost all of these scholars returned to their posts in Iraqi ministries and executive agencies.
• It introduced the base concepts of public-policy making as a governance tool and legitimizing factor for GoI leadership, notably in the offices of the prime minister, president, and deputy prime ministers.
• It trained over 108,000 Iraqi civil servants in basic public-administration skills, especially project management, human resources, leadership and communications, and information technology. It established a base of skilled individuals who were better prepared to take on some of Iraq's larger and more complex challenges.
By June 2011, the concurrent effects of the Arab Spring and the looming drawdown of U.S. forces saw blame for the problems facing Iraq's citizens increasingly shifting to the political elite. Protests led by Muqtada al-Sadr in the months following the Day of Rage focused on the repatriation of the American forces. With the pending departure of the U.S. military, the pressure was increasing on the al-Maliki government to address the core complaints that Iraq's citizens held in common with the Arab Spring protesters in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere.
Following Iraq's March 2010 election, it took more than eight months to negotiate a solution to the political impasse and form a new coalition government. The compromise that allowed al-Maliki to retain his seat as prime minister rested on an agreement that his opponent, Ayad Allawi, would become the chairman of a new council that would have authority over national policy.
For better or for worse, Iraq's 2005 constitution provides a legal basis for executive-level public-policy making that is unprecedented in the region. Article 78 provides that, "The Prime Minister is the direct executive authority responsible for the general policy of the State[…]," while Article 80 states, "The Council of Ministers shall exercise the […] power to plan and execute the general policy and general plans of the State and oversee the work of the ministries and departments not associated with a ministry."1 However, this particular avenue had not been formally elaborated upon despite the constitution's having been in place for over five years. Not surprisingly, the prime minister's office (PMO) was interested in establishing its policy mechanisms, stressing that the constitution requires this, while at the same time bolstering the claim that Parliament's compromise — to give policy responsibilities to Allawi, as the losing candidate in the 2010 election — was unconstitutional. Iraq's sudden interest in public policy grew out of more than concerns surrounding the Arab Spring; it was seen as a possible solution to a very real political problem.
The new government was seated on December 22, 2010 — concurrent with the start of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Inexperienced in office, Iraqi officials were immediately occupied with Iraq's domestic concerns as well as the revolutionary environment that was quickly taking hold in other parts of the region. They realized that they were in the difficult position that many new democratic and transitional governments experience. First, citizens expect almost immediate change and immediate results; second, to earn legitimacy the government needs to be effective, but to be effective it must have legitimacy.
In this context, the potential entry points for Iraq's new cadre of policy makers were numerous. The regional context, along with the dreadful status of Iraq's service-delivery mechanisms, did much to align priorities across the government and the nation. Developing and implementing public policies that are technically sound, economically feasible and not politically volatile, while addressing citizens' concerns and including them in decision-making looked to be a promising course of strategic action for the government. At a time when the government strove to legitimize and validate itself to a people witnessing major changes across the region, the GoI welcomed the idea of Tarabot's assistance in establishing mechanisms to formulate policy responses to citizens' issues. The opening of this door was driven by a combination of regional upheaval, domestic political concerns and support from the team of Arabic-speaking public-policy advisers employed by Management Systems International (MSI). This team was uniquely led by Joseph Ghougassian, the first person born in an Arab country to ever serve as a U.S. ambassador (to Qatar, 1985-89) and who, as a young lawyer, had served in the White House policy office. In MSI's experience, it was critical to present advisers that executive-level Iraqi officials perceived as equals. Tarabot was exceptionally well-positioned and well-timed to assist in this regard.
From the outset, Tarabot offered systems-level support to the GoI's public-policy making efforts. It succeeded Tatweer's similar capacity-building approach, offering to strengthen the policy process itself without any political agenda. In the wake of the Arab Spring, some have rightly noted that policy-bolstering activities, while viable and appealing, would require "donor constraint" in order to ensure counterpart buy-in.2 With the GoI adopting a policy-making approach based on immediate issues and opportunities, Tarabot's capacity and systems-oriented program validated this notion. The hot-button issues of great interest to international donors were of far lower priority for Iraq's leadership. At the same time, practical issues of universal concern, such as those relating to employment or electricity, had gone largely unaddressed by policy and were of greatest immediate interest to the majority of Iraq's decision makers. Tarabot helped its Iraqi counterparts to further define their issues and scope, convene relevant stakeholders, and assist with the technical aspects of certain policies.
Tarabot was able to seize this opportunity and assist top Iraqi decision makers and executive offices through an integrated approach to national policy management. This included building skills and capacity among more than 100 new civil-servant policy makers; assisting in the establishment of units to formulate and communicate policy; assisting policy offices to stand up their day-to-day operations while consulting effectively with appropriate government and nongovernmental stakeholders; and providing technical assistance as needed during the consultative policy-making process.
In early 2012, USAID signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the office of the prime minister of Iraq. This MOU outlined American support for Iraq's efforts to improve its policies and regulation-development process to make it more inclusive and transparent, as called for under the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement.
Prime Minister al-Maliki approved the first high-level institutionalization of policy making in Iraq as part of this MOU. The Office of Policy Development (OPD) in the prime minister's office became one of the region's first executive-level public-policy offices. Shortly before that, the Office of the Presidency Diwan established its own Bureau of Public Policy with Tarabot assistance. Several of Iraq's most important ministries, including electricity, labor and social affairs, industry and minerals, and migration and displacement, also established their own policy functions with support from Tarabot. The leadership of these ministries was also politically diverse, representing the Iraqiyya, State of Law, National Iraqi Alliance and Kurdish Alliance political blocs. The Iraqi and American agreement also provided for joint support efforts to include all segments of Iraqi society in policy making, including private businesses, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, media and universities. Tarabot advisors worked with these newly appointed policy makers to strengthen their understanding of the policy-making process and pursue the government's policy agendas. Once an issue was identified, Tarabot assisted to broaden policy outreach efforts by hosting civil-society and private-sector actors and provided technical assistance as needed.
Historically, Iraq's public-policy-making process shared many qualities with the mechanisms in Libya, Tunisia and other Arab Spring nations, namely that they were devoid of external inputs. The role of civil society was foreign to many Iraqi officials, and their capacity to serve as credible inputs for process was questioned. However, as the Tarabot-supported policy process got underway, the GoI's policy makers took the initial steps towards a long-term culture change. For the first time in Iraq's modern history, GoI policy makers came together with groups of nongovernmental stakeholders. These actors, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), universities, women's organizations, think tanks, professional associations and private-sector organizations, were engaged as policy shapers during an inclusive policy-making process. Iraqi government officials found that NGOs were closer to the issues at hand, knew better the framing of the issues, and had valid ideas for solutions. Media organizations were able to offer further insight into public perceptions, further validating the process. Additionally, as Iraq's policy makers became invested in their solutions, the usefulness of NGOs contributing to actual policy implementation became more apparent.
Tarabot initially facilitated workshops where the public, private, and civil-society sectors could discuss the policies in progress. With Tarabot's help, the GoI brought over 150 Iraqi NGOs to the table for policy debates, roundtables and conferences. These events became formative experiences for many of Iraq's new policy makers as well as members of civil society. The act of asking someone's opinion on a matter with which he/she is intricately involved is validating, particularly if that person has not been previously engaged. In return, the asker is exposed to more information and better able to devise appropriate solutions.
The start of a culture change was visibly apparent: the simple Iraqi tradition of exchanging business cards and phone numbers, but this time between public officials and nongovernmental actors, was validating for both sides. Some examples of these emerging relationships and their effect on the policy-making process are described below.
In previous years, Iraq's "policies" either collected dust on the desks where they were written, or were implemented without proper analysis of options or the inclusion of stakeholder perspectives or accountability mechanisms. Now, Iraq's public policies were drafted in collaborative fashion, incorporating ideas and solutions driven by inputs from stakeholders close to the issues, consensus-building discussions and roundtables, and technical research into recognized solutions across the globe. Starting in 2011, Iraq's policy issues of concern were consistently socially oriented and service-based. With Tarabot's ongoing assistance, the GoI's new policy offices drafted 26 new documents, all of which are policy "firsts" for Iraq. This marks a stark improvement from "policy-making" processes of the past. Some examples of the policies that were developed through the mechanisms established with Tarabot's help include the following:
The lack of sufficient reliable electricity has been an urgent concern; in this hot and dry country, electricity cools houses and pumps water. More recent statistical data show that electricity has superseded security as the top concern among Iraq's citizens.3 It is also the largest obstacle to Iraq's continued development and stability. The improving but still inadequate power grid is further hampered by significant transmission, distribution and consumer-side waste.4 The Ministry of Electricity drafted a comprehensive energy-efficiency policy that aims to make better use of Iraq's existing energy capacity, focusing on three areas: an efficiency-enabling environment, innovative technical solutions and renewable energy. This policy was developed with Tarabot's technical and sectoral support.
"Brain Gain": Restoring Iraq's Academia
Thousands of academics left Iraq over the past decades, due to oppression, instability or lack of opportunity. They have had little incentive to return. Many have degrees from top schools in America, Europe and the Middle East and are working as professors, engineers, scientists, and doctors — professions that Iraq desperately needs. A great many wish to return to their country and take part in its rehabilitation, but are prevented by an out-of-date 1976 law restricting accreditation of foreign degrees. The Presidency Diwan Bureau of Public Policy with Tarabot's assistance drafted an innovative new policy to incentivize the return of some of Iraq's thousands of émigré academics. The dissolution of the 1976 law was chief among the policy's recommendations. In response, the Council of Ministers amended Decree 441, one of the laws that restrict accreditation of foreign degrees. The policy also petitioned 400 Iraqi academics to consider returning for a trial period of a year. The policy process saw numerous stakeholders at the table — the Ministry of Higher Education, the Presidency Diwan, Nahrain and Baghdad Universities, the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies and Research, the head of the parliament's education committee, and the Society for Higher Education Abroad, an Iraqi NGO.
This problem spiked in 1988 and has remained high ever since, approaching 25 percent in 2013.5 A generation of young people unable to live up to their potential was a key driver of the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. The PMO OPD drafted a policy paper to frame this issue, identify a strategy to mitigate it and offer potential solutions. The paper details the distinct employment challenges facing youth, whether educated or uneducated, urban or rural. The paper also notes that social benefits alone do not constitute a sustainable long-term solution and that the private sector must take the leading role, a contrast from previous Iraqi efforts to reduce unemployment. The policy calls for federal support measures to bolster private-sector and targeted regulatory and legal reform. The OPD developed this paper with stakeholders from several relevant Iraqi ministries as well as from numerous university, civil-society and private-sector entities.
An additional 22 policy documents have been drafted, addressing the following subjects, among others:
• Modernizing the postal service (OPD)
• Desertification and groundwater issues (OPD)
• The performance of higher-education institutions, including faculty rankings and admission procedures (OPD)
• Homeless orphans (Policy Bureau in the Presidency Diwan)
• Violence against women (Ministry of Human Rights)
• Slum housing (Ministry of Migration and Displacement)
• Pollution of the Tigris River and the ozone layer (Ministry of Environment)
• Strengthening the industrial sector (Ministry of Industry and Minerals)
• Streamlining trade agreements (Ministry of Trade)
• Re-establishing the poultry industry (OPD)
Among development practitioners, the notion that "the process is more important than the product" is an important mantra. In Iraq, the process so far has been effective and is maturing through each cycle of the policy-making process. The results — Iraq's first inclusively developed public policy documents — are themselves significant as well.
It will take years before the impact of these initial policy products can be ascertained, or whether the established processes can be sustained and expanded to tackle the complex and volatile issues facing Iraq today. However, there are a number of lessons that international donors can derive from the USAID-Tarabot experience, with an eye to the future.
Build a foundation and plan for the long term. First, there are benefits to establishing a clear understanding and policy-making capacity long before any issues are directly addressed. The general groundwork laid by the Tatweer program contributed to Iraq's policy achievements following its conclusion. The Tarabot program was initiated in the summer of 2011 and will conclude by the end of 2014. Dating back to the groundwork laid in 2009-11 under the Tatweer program, it took until 2013 for this assistance to produce tangible policies.
Have programmatic flexibility and seize worthwhile opportunities. Cultural changes take time but can be aided by external factors that unify priorities. This was demonstrated by the case of Iraq in the context of the Arab Spring and its concurrent domestic political dilemma and remains relevant as new challenges appear. With ideologically divergent actors ranging from Muqtada al-Sadr to Saleh Mutlaq condemning ISIL's violation of Iraqi sovereignty and publically calling for unity amid the accompanying sectarian fallout, alignments that can be built upon continue to emerge. However, it is important for international donors to show restraint when designing programs so as to ensure that counterparts truly own the initiatives that they are working on.
Allow counterparts to focus on issues of wide concern. An issue-based policy agenda has multiple entry points, each of which can more broadly unite communities and render the impediments from political losers more immediately manageable. In Iraq, demands for reliable electricity span all geographic and sectarian divides. Similarly, the "Brain Gain" policy harkened back to Iraq's golden age of academia and public administration in the 1960s and 1970s, and attracted many champions: parliament; the prime minister's office; the ministries of higher education, labor and social affairs, and migration and displacement; Iraqi universities; and members of the Iraqi academic diaspora. This will be particularly relevant given Iraq's looming policy obstacles, regardless of how the political situation unfolds.
Promote linkages in the policy process from both sides. An issue-based policy agenda also binds the government to problems affecting the citizens, holds the government more accountable, and strengthens the linkages between the two. This will be an extremely important dynamic to "prove" to Iraq's citizens that the government is committed to any reconciliation efforts.
Plan for institutional sustainability. Impact and sustainability are at risk if the government does not formalize its structures of policy development and policy implementation. In the case of this project, the prime minister's office is responsible for steering policy objectives, while the Council of Ministers' Secretariat is responsible for implementation of the policies themselves.
Plan for sustainable individual capacity. To help secure continuity of Tarabot's policy initiatives, the project worked with the University of Nahrain to establish the Center for Public Policy Research and Studies to provide policy-making "manpower" that the government can turn to in the future. Tarabot also conducted special courses for selected political-science professors from 10 Iraqi universities. These courses aimed to introduce public policy into their curriculum, with endorsement and cooperation from the Ministry of Higher Education.
Expand international linkages to gain knowledge and build credibility. Tarabot has helped Iraq's policy offices to establish linkages with regional think tanks, such as the Carnegie Endowment in Lebanon. This type of academic and international outreach is critical for helping Iraq to break out of its isolation and view lingering domestic issues from new perspectives.
In many ways, the revolutions and wars of the Arab Spring were sparked by the broad disconnect between citizen and government. The efforts of the public elite to maintain their hold on power resulted in a profound detachment from the realities of their citizenry. In 2011, Iraqi officials knew well the experience of living under an autocratic regime and saw what was happening to their neighbors in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Accordingly, many Iraqi decision makers understood the value of citizen interface and the importance of the issues they faced. USAID and Tarabot also understood the direction of the emergent Iraq and were uniquely positioned to build linkages from the ground up. Tarabot proved flexible, apolitical support can enhance government receptivity to public-policy discussions, foster sustainable stronger linkages to civil society and citizens, and create a cadre of pragmatic and competent policy makers. The Iraqi government identified and exploited opportunities for validation, legitimization and genuine improvement amid turmoil in the region driven by similar crises.
In an ideal scenario, Iraq's citizens will benefit from a government that is increasingly capable of translating social and economic priorities into law and subsequently into changes on the ground. The reality, however, is that the "Arab Spring" type of citizen disconnect has been largely supplanted by a pointed sectarian divide. The protracted civil conflict with ISIL continues, augmenting already-high political instability in the wake of the 2014 parliamentary election. In public remarks made some six months prior to ISIL's invasion, perhaps Iraq's most prominent Sunni politician, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, called for further efforts toward "national reconciliation."6 These remarks predated the major sectarian rift-widening catastrophe in Hawija, ISIL's rapid invasion of Ninawa and Salah ad Din, and the subsequent fallout from mobilization of Shia militias. Of course, such a complex notion cannot be determined solely in the offices of Iraq's policy makers; it requires a genuine political buy-in. Mutlaq's pragmatic sentiment has regrettably not been echoed by Maliki at the highest echelon of Iraq's leadership, despite similar calls from the entire political sphere. However, the current Iraqi government, unlike the regimes of Assad or Qadhafi, has fostered a cadre of savvy politicians, many of whom are as pragmatic and willing to compromise as they are ambitious. Opportunities will emerge as the post-election political situation plays out. For incoming Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi or other leaders to address these complex issues, they must be addressed by a government capable of reaching out to its citizens and offering those involved a place at the table. Iraq's new policy makers and policy mechanisms have set an important precedent in this regard.
1 Nouri al-Maliki, "100 Days Speech," http://www.alsumaria.tv/news/38681/maliki-launches-new-reforms-in-iraq; and Mohammed Al-Qaisi. "Iraqis Welcome al-Maliki's 100 Day Period to Improve Government Performance," Al-Shorfa, March 5, 2011, http://mawtani.al-shorfa.com/en_GB/articles/iii/features/iraqtoday/2011….
2 "The Constitution of Iraq: UN-U.S.-UK Agreed Translation" (manuscript, 2005), http://gjpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/agreed-final-english-transla….
3 Jon B. Alterman, "Investing in a More Robust Public Policy Environment in the Middle East" (analysis paper, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2011).
4 "A Major Shift in the Political Landscape: Reporting on the 2012 Iraq National Survey" working paper (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 2012), http://www.ndi.org/files/NDI-Iraq - April 2012 National Survey - Report.pdf.
5 Fatih Birol, "Iraq Energy Outlook," International Energy Agency (IEA), October 9, 2012, http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/WEO_2012_I….
6 National Development Plan 2013-2017 (Baghdad, Iraq: Iraqi Ministry of Planning, January 2013).
7 "Governance and Stability in Iraq: Remarks by Deputy Prime Minister H.E. Mr. Saleh al-Mutlaq and Discussions with Members of the Council of Representatives," January 14, 2014, http://www.usip.org/events/governance-and-stability-in-iraq-0.