By Mercedes Miguel

This blog is part of a DeliverEd Initiative series by policymakers and leaders from around the world who share their challenges in delivering reforms and reflect on the various approaches used to solve these challenges in their countries.

DeliverEd aims to build the evidence base for how governments in low- and middle-income countries can achieve their policy priorities in education using delivery approaches.

Around the world, government leaders have long faced challenges with translating big reform agendas into tangible actions that lead to the desired results. Some countries have taken to adopting delivery approaches, an institutionalized unit or structured process within a government bureaucracy that aims to rapidly improve bureaucratic functioning and policy delivery by combining a set of managerial functions in a novel way to shift attention from inputs and processes to outputs and outcomes.

A recent global mapping identified that 16 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean have used delivery approaches, the highest adoption rate second only to sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 20% of the delivery approaches identified globally were from Latin America and the Caribbean.

We sat down with DeliverEd High-level Advisory Group Co-chair Mercedes Miguel, former Secretary of State for Innovation and Quality in Education at the National Ministry of Education in Argentina, to learn more about her experiences improving service delivery for over 12 million children in Argentina’s education system.

You played a leading role in developing Argentina’s National Education Strategy Plan. What were some of the plan’s key priorities, and what process did the Ministry go through to set these priorities?

The Argentina Teaches and Learns 2016-2021 Strategic Plan was my first mission as soon I stepped into office. As National Secretary of State for Quality and Innovation in a federal system, I knew that we would need a deep, fast consensus on Argentina’s plan. We decided to focus on learning outcomes for the 12 million students across the country’s 24 provinces. We also highlighted the dimensions that were critical  to achieve our mission of improving learning.

We chose to establish a federal network called the National Learning Improvement Network, which brought together all 24 ministers, one for each of the provinces, every two months for two-day meetings. The National Ministry coordinated and hosted the meetings, created an agenda, selected key challenges to discuss, and drafted reports about the process and progress. Each minister received a folder with his/her Provincial Education Statistics, national, regional, and international assessment results, and big data to use as evidence for the policy planning process. The meetings also invited the 24 provincial planning teams to work together with the ministers through this process to improve coordination, collaboration, and communication.

Our key priorities all centered around improving learning outcomes, including focusing on connectivity and digital education, increasing secondary-level school completion rates, improving equity, creating accountability and increasing efficiencies in budgeting at the federal level, and improving teacher training through in-service peer-to-peer programs.

Our relentless focus on learning outcomes made a huge impact on the new dialogue, agenda, and the discourse around learning. It was a really new conversation at the minister- and technical teams- level, but one that we needed to start  to make significant progress for all of Argentina’s learners. I really enjoyed being part of the process of moving students’ learning to the center of every single public policy in education during that period.

What were one or two key policies that were the most challenging to implement? What solutions did the Ministry adopt to address these challenges?

In the federal education system, every single policy is a challenge. For Argentina specifically, each public policy is debated and voted for approval by the 24 ministers who form the National Education Council – a policy must be approved by the majority for it to be implemented. I would say one of the most challenging aspects of changing the system was reorienting the logic and increasing the use of evidence for planning and implementing education public policies, especially policies related to financing the provincial-level systems.

The second most difficult and demanding policy centered around improving learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy. To address this challenge, we focused all the budget and agenda of the National Institute for Teacher Training towards improving teachers’ practices in the classroom. We worked to reach one million teachers around the entire country with seminars, training programs, and peer-to-peer strategies. Teachers were guided through various exercises and activities that reinforced the goals of supporting learning and were provided with teaching materials they could use in their classrooms. We also hired universities to reach more than 48,000 school principals and their teacher teams. After two years of profound work with the provincial teams and their teachers in every ministry, Argentina showed improvement in literacy at the national level and a small improvement was even seen in PISA results.

Another very significant achievement was seen in the “Lighthouse Schools” National Program, which focused on 3,000 highly vulnerable and low-performing schools around the country. We created a strong federal task force to accomplish the difficult goal of improving learning outcomes in these schools. After two years, national assessment results showed that these Lighthouse Schools not only improved their learning levels but achieved better results in the national assessment than the rest of all the schools in the country.

How were individuals working in the Ministry and across all levels of the system held accountable for achieving results outlined in the Education Strategy Plan? Was Argentina more focused on accountability-driven approaches, incentives-based approaches, or both? How was leadership developed at all levels of the system?

As soon as you create these demands for leaders to improve, we realized the high importance of guidance, advisory support, and one-on-one tracking systems that we needed to put in place. The National Learning Improvement Network I mentioned earlier was the hub for keeping the system accountable. We convened in different provinces every two months, where teams could share challenges, goals, and practices, and where we as the national leaders could share the state of improvement, achievement, and governability at each level (national-provincial) based on the metrics and indicators created in the National Strategy Plan to track the progress towards reaching goals.

To be coherent with the delivery policy, all the education financing systems were reorganized under the goals, indicators, and priorities set in the National Strategy Plan. This new system was built under what we called the Annual Integral Operative Plan (POAI). This was an extremely new and quite tough system to implement within every provincial ministry. The POAI was the planning tool for every province to set its annual priorities, goals, indicators, and the corresponding budget in education. For most provinces, this was the first time ministers could have the whole system and areas plan and assigned budget in one unique plan and system. We did not work on an incentives-based approach, but we did share improvements with the rest of the country. Ministers at federal meetings would receive  recognition of their work, and we invited other countries in the region to share their work with us.

You also played a central role in creating the National School of Government for Education Policies. What was the catalyst for forming this institution?

The catalyst was the National Strategy Plan. If we needed to move the system towards improving, we needed strong teams in every province to be able to do that. Observing the data and evidence we had on the table, including from conversations with the minsters, we realized most of the provinces had an enormous lack of professional and experienced teams who could execute on the strategies to deliver on learning. We also saw how various international organizations who worked with national governments could bring in experts to support the process, sitting with the local teams for a significant amount of time to provide information that allowed the experts to do their work, but that once everything was done, no capacity-building for our country staff was generated. We knew we could not rely solely on “experts” from outside of Argentina.

I realized that good ministers – even those with excellent vision, intention, and purpose – who lacked a professional team to deliver on strategic policies would never be able to accomplish what was already voted and agreed. We made an alliance with OEI (Iberoamerican States Organization) to launch the National School of Government for Education Policies, specifically for these provincial, local teams who remain committed civil servants, even during every government transition.

The impact of this strategy was phenomenal. We generated high-quality training programs for leaders around the region to learn the HOW of public policies and focus more deeply on implementation, empowering whole teams and giving policies a future-facing vision. The most powerful achievement of the National School was creating a network at federal level, of all those writing, planning, assessing, and implementing budget and public policies among the 24 provinces. Every single team and minister were advocates of this strategy. I always felt very deeply proud of this national program and establishing the National School of Government for Education Policies, together with  my team and all the federal teams who made it possible.

You have mentioned that “delivery” was a polarizing word in Argentina. Why? Has the culture surrounding delivery changed, and if so, how/why? 

Fortunately, my experience as the Education Planning Director in Buenos Aires City government for six years gave my team and me the needed strategies to face the challenge of executing education public policies in a very different way at the national level. For the local and federal teams, an evidence-based culture, model, and strategy was very new.

I knew we would have to build a new culture and a new type of leadership to make technical and professional teams work with this new vision of creating education public policies driven by evidence. During many years before we got into office, the federal system was not working this way, and decision-making relied more on subjective and qualitative information mixed with political motivations. Talking about evidence, budget efficiency, accountability, and delivering policies on time, on budget, and achieving the goals as planned was new. We all needed this culture to change, which is why we invested the time and budget in creating the National School of Government for Public Policies and the Federal Learning Improvement Network I have mentioned to build capacity and generate a powerful delivery learning task force in each province and as a federal team.

Although many things have changed with the new government, some of these huge transformations are still growing, and I believe they are grassroots changes that now belong to each local team at the ministry level. We built the capacity of these teams to continue moving on their plans, even with political transitions. It is very similar to what Amel Karboul mentioned in her reflections as Minister of Tourism for Tunisia.

What are some lessons from implementing reform agendas during your time in office that you would share with other leaders across Latin America and the rest of the world?

I learned so many lessons  during my ten years in office, but I would definitely share the importance of bearing in mind that any single educational reform is an emotional reform. As leaders, we deal with people – and emotions play a deep, profound role in individuals’ attitudes towards “doing” something. Investing in team-building, meeting stakeholders’ needs, listening in a deep and honest way, inviting active participation, building collaborative spaces, and co-creating policies is what allowed for creating sustainable public policy. People (public servants, professionals, teachers, principals, community leaders, unions) need to be an active part of the planning, implementation, and assessment process. Then, the public policy and the results achieved belong to them and they feel a true sense of ownership.

The other huge lesson learned relates to team-building. When you are in office for a limited time, accomplishing goals and priorities in a specific amount of time and within budget requires a dream team. Maybe you won’t be able to afford the best professionals for each area needed, but make sure you have the most committed, brave individuals who share your vision on your team and who can lead the planning strategy and monitoring of results in order to achieve implementation. Invest time in creating the best team attitude, giving and receiving tough feedback to achieve the plan, and regularly checking in on progress. There is a huge myth in educational systems around the world: it’s all about more money. With a very good team, clear priorities when planning (I believe less is more), a method for follow-up, consistency, and brave leadership, you will find that it might not be about more money needed, but about more efficiency in the use of your budget.

Finally, share! Share your challenges with local, regional, and global systems. There are global problems and challenges in education that are similar, and of course, they have local solutions. While having the privilege to serve as the chair of the G20’s first-ever education meetings in 2018, I became aware of the huge impact that sharing practices, achievements, and especially failures, across countries can have. International organizations, together with cooperation from ministries at various levels, have a huge potential to lead these knowledge-sharing events.

Mercedes Miguel is former Secretary of State for Innovation and Quality in Education at the National Ministry of Education, Argentina and currently co-chair of the DeliverEd High-Level Advisory Group. Before taking on her role as Secretary of State, she was a teacher, and since 2010 served in public administration as Planning General Director at the City of Buenos Aires Education Ministry. In this position, she led the Teachers’ School, led the creation of the first Curriculum for Secondary Level Schools, and led the digital education policy. Since 2016, she created the National Education Strategy Plan for the federal system, developed the National School of Government for Education Policies to improve human capacity at the provincial level, led the transformation of digital education, and improved literacy outcomes at the national level through the National Teachers Training Institute. She led the consensus for the implementation of a new framework for secondary level schools and the Learning Mathematics National Plan. Ms. Miguel represented Argentina at the OECD Education Committee and was also a member of the UNESCO 2030 Steering Committee for two periods. Furthermore, she was designated Chair of the Education Working Group during the Argentine Presidency of the G20 during 2018 leading on both the Education and Education and Labor joint declaration.