Agenda 2030: The Sustainable Development Goals

Ms Margaret Saner CBE, Vice Chair of the Committee of Experts on Public AdministrationMargaret Saner CBE is Vice Chair of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration and an independent adviser specialising in governance, leadership, change and institution building. Recent assignments include a diagnostic review of a public service in the Caribbean.  In her career in the UK Civil Service, Margaret led a number of service-wide initiatives in the UK and worked extensively with other governments, including a loan to the Government of Kenya. She supported the Head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the UK in establishing cross government accountability for results. Margaret founded the Sunningdale Institute and is a former Chief Executive of the Civil Service College. She is also a former Director at CAPAM. She particularly enjoys the opportunities she now has to work with post graduate students, for example, at the University of Sussex. Margaret will complete eight years as a member of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) in 2017. 

In 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this article, as well as sharing some observations from my experience as a member of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (UNCEPA), I want to encourage you to use CAPAM as a forum for sharing ideas, experiences, concerns and achievements in relation to the SDGs. 

To begin, a couple of snapshots.  At the CAPAM Biennial Conference in Malaysia last year (2016), I asked how many in the group were involved in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Several hands went up but the large majority did not. And earlier this year, I attended the Small Island Development States Symposium run by the UN in the Bahamas. It was one of the liveliest, most focused events I have been to in a while (except of course the CAPAM Biennial!).  Why? Perhaps because the Goals matter to them, they are immensely relevant, some in particular, and that has energised many of these States to get moving and quickly. It’s early days and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) didn’t really get going for several years, so arguably there is time. On the other hand I think the longer we wait the harder it will be.

During my time as a Member of UNCEPA we have looked back over the implementation of the MDGs: what worked and what didn’t and offered advice to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the development and implementation of the SDGs.1  We’ve been very clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’: the SDGs needed to be meaningful locally and linked into national goals and plans. We advised that countries would have differing priorities, but that the challenges of implementation might produce shared issues and learning. We, and others, understand only too well the vital importance of sustained political will and leadership through election cycles, natural disasters, conflicts and other potential distractions and disruptions.

Information about the Goals themselves can be found at: Most are related to aims we would all want to achieve, such as ending poverty, but there are understandable differences of view and priority across the globe and within the Commonwealth. As public administrators we recognise this challenge of determining priority, allocation of resources and the particular approach to dealing with the issue as policy development. Within policy development also sits effective implementation, since the brilliant ideas are not worth much if they don’t change things on the ground. Surrounding the policy development process are our values, beliefs and expectations, sometimes influenced by evidence; sometimes by assumption and ideology. In recent years many countries have developed rigorous policy development approaches which are iterative, data driven and focused on innovation.  The interlinked nature of the SDGs adds a further layer of complexity since few policy challenges sit neatly in one of the organisational units we have tended to create over recent years.  Resolving most of them requires collaboration across organisational boundaries in order to achieve what Agenda 2030 calls policy cohesion (sectorally, nationally or internationally).

So the SDGs demand both expert specialist knowledge of topics such as social protection, climate change, food security and so on, but also the ability to establish reliable baseline data, track progress, develop and implement innovative solutions to long standing problems and produce results that benefit citizens. SDG 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels) is of course particularly relevant to public administrators, but arguably all of the Goals rely on effective institutions (including of course their people and systems) and other elements of Goal 16 for success.

There is a formal review process of the SDGS under the oversight of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), and you can read the report of the 2016 review at:  This is a voluntary process and it is really encouraging that so many countries are taking part. The challenges they highlight are many and varied and too detailed to repeat here, however, much of what was anticipated as the challenges have indeed turned out to be the case.

I mentioned earlier the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and for many of them SDG 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources)  is literally vitally important and a matter of livelihoods.  The SIDS have worked rapidly to consult citizens (often in geographically demanding circumstances), to integrate local goals into national plans and to map these plans together with other international commitments and agendas into a prioritised action plan.  Many report that the process has been useful, highlighting where issues and policies overlap or interlink and suggesting unexpected ways to resolve problems which would not have been uncovered by a single issue approach. These countries are now faced with the challenge of limited resources both in terms of finance and capacity since they are already trying to deal with the economic impact of the very events, such as hurricanes and rising sea levels that Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) and Goal 14 seek to address. Such events often have a catastrophic impact on people’s wellbeing, on the environment and a country’s ability to move forward.  Many of us in other parts of the world have perhaps not fully woken up to the full extent of their struggle, yet elsewhere other issues and therefore Goals will have relevance and therefore priority.  Reading Agenda 30 and the Goals will hopefully open our eyes and increase our understanding of each other’s perspectives.

Some countries either already had sustainable development plans and mechanisms for monitoring or have set them up.  Others will have infrastructure designed to support the implementation of the MDGs which can be adapted and built on to support the SDGs. Many will have existing national planning processes, which if integrated with the SDGs as envisaged above, provide the oversight of the SDG implementation process. As an aside, in some cases national plans were drawn up with the best of intentions to be aspirational in driving economic progress and were not necessarily the product of an inclusive approach, engaging citizens in the way envisaged by Agenda 2030. Such plans have a tendency to end up on shelves or being run as a ‘tick box’ exercise and without review are probably not a sufficient basis for linking to the SDGS.  ‘Doability’ is also an important factor making it advisable in certain circumstances to focus on a few key outcomes at the outset rather than try to grapple with all issues at the same time.  As experience and capability grows it becomes more feasible to move on to other Goals, in time creating a positive chain reaction or virtuous spiral of positive results. Over-ambitious plans can become mired in complexity and stall simply because people are unclear about priority or focus. Or just as often, end up in the ‘it’s all too difficult box’.

SDG monitoring mechanisms do not need to mean the creation of a further organisation or ministry: indeed sometimes new organisations have the effect, intended or otherwise, of simply delaying action and blurring responsibility, but that can be avoided. Whatever approach is selected, there is unlikely to be progress unless there is clear, tangible evidence of high-level political interest and expectation, reinforced by strong links between this level and those across government who lead the SDG implementation process. It is worth mentioning here that in many cases administrations at local level are most directly in touch with citizens and are often responsible for implementation of national as well as local policies in an area.  Success in achieving the SDGs may, therefore, be dependent upon local authorities having the skills and resources they require to fulfil Agenda 2030.

When looked at as a whole, government aims are often interconnected and, with resources usually being limited, the key to search for is the steps that can be taken to either remove a barrier or release potential in one area, which will then have a knock-on effect towards achieving other goals. For example, improving education opportunities and outcomes coupled with encouraging business development (however small) may boost economic growth and also reduce crime, improve health, lift people, even families, out of poverty.  What is really important to understand are the factors at work in a community. Can young people access further education, are fees or travel a problem, or do they see no point because it won’t lead anywhere? Are there particular obstacles to young women being economically active? Possible causes will be there for you to find and a degree of experimentation may be needed to discover what makes the critical difference. Inherent in this thinking is the need for public administrators to consult and engage citizens, to avoid making assumptions and to use data. We must work together across traditional organisational boundaries to problem solve and try out new approaches. 

This is one of the reasons why top-level political leadership, which encourages and supports such an approach, is vital and has been highlighted many times by CEPA.  No one should be taking risks with public money that have not been fully thought through and mitigation put in place. In this context audit institutions have a role to play in encouraging a more evidence-based, risk-assessed approach. One that, when done appropriately, should not draw criticism if a particular attempt does not work out as hoped for. A further observation on the question of risk would be that an overly conservative and cautious approach, that is doing nothing for fear of unintended consequences, may itself carry risks and that avoiding new approaches may also deny the administration the benefits of unexpected dividends. 

Managing finance well is one aspect of an effective institution – by that I mean ensuring that the priority goals receive adequate (meaning sufficient) funding to be capable of being implemented.  The corollary to allocating funding on a priority basis is that routine activities not on the priority list may receive less. This may mean making difficult choices and reducing funding to some parts of government that are accustomed to year-on-year funding. Branding an issue as a priority and then failing to ensure appropriate resources are allocated, or allowing resources to be improperly diverted or influence to be misused, demonstrates at best a lack of commitment and at worst deliberate misleading of the public. Goal 16 also addresses issues of corruption – one target is to: Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms. This certainly means ensuring that all money intended for public benefit is not diverted and that 100% of resources, supplies and services for citizens reach the people for which they were intended. 

Effective institutions are borne out of applying effective governance systems and means they have the leadership and organisational capability to achieve their goals within the environment in which they operate.  This usually means legal frameworks and agreements, both national and international, taking into account other factors such as culture and values. Over the years CEPA members have made clear that there is no one recipe for success; that ‘best’ practice is not a helpful concept since what has worked in one place may not work elsewhere and may be completely wrong for another set of circumstances. Nonetheless it may be helpful to think through issues around the effectiveness of your institutions, organisations, systems and leadership approach in a methodical way. Much has been said about the interrelated nature of the SDGs. This is important because it shines a light on how well public administrations are able to deal with complex problems.  Public sector reform and modernisation programmes have been around for many years and arguably should be an ongoing, evolving process of review and updating on a regular basis. The SDGs however, generally relate to those issues we have failed to resolve. Our current practice has not always worked, which is why the issues are captured in the Goals – one implication being that we might benefit from trying new and different approaches. This is not to say that nothing has worked ever, anywhere, of course it has. We’ve seen marked reductions in poverty for example in recent years, however the context is also continually evolving and conflicts, climate events and political attitudes change, which may drive past successes in the opposite direction to the one hoped for.

There is a wealth of case study material and analysis available. The challenge now is taking action and, even more fundamentally, showing willingness to rigorously weigh up one’s own circumstances and be prepared to commit to priorities that are seen through with skill and determination. So the following is intended as a prompt. It’s not an exhaustive list or ‘how to’, far from it, but these are some of the topics that CEPA has highlighted and that also appear in the High Level Political Forum reviews. Whatever your particular discipline and whatever lens you happen to be looking through, whether, health, agriculture, education, sport, law enforcement or revenue and so on, you may want to ask yourself some questions. I have suggested that trying to deal with the whole may seem too daunting (much depends on levels of capability and resource), perhaps a way forward is to surface the issues, do the mapping then pick some key strands for action.  It will be a living, dynamic and iterative process.


Are there a clear and manageable number of priorities? Have they been formally approved so that they receive appropriate funding and resources? You may well find as others have done that many of your existing goals fit easily with the SDGS.

Is it clear to all who and what will be involved in meeting these priorities, e.g. has the implementation process (or delivery chain) been mapped out? Are targets realistic?

Are all parties who need to be involved around the table? This may include the private sector or voluntary sector. Do they all ‘own’ the challenge(s) you are working on?

Would those with responsibilities agree that they have the resources they need to discharge their responsibilities?

Has the expertise needed to meet the goals been identified? Where could you find it/how could you develop it?


Are there potential solutions to your issues that lend themselves to some form of trial or experimentation?  Has discussion with interested parties highlighted possible new avenues or familiar ones that could be implemented more effectively? Have circumstances changed so that something previously ruled out now becomes a possibility? Might new technologies or scientific understanding offer potential?

Are communication channels across sectors, within levels of government and across government working as well as they need to? Could you enlist community support or do you first need to raise awareness in the community through groups, education, meetings and so on.

Are there potential partnerships to be established?  These could be within a profession, across sectors, with other government organisations or community based.

Trust is usually a prerequisite for joint action, especially when what is being asked is different to the ‘norm’.  Building trust takes time, mutual understanding and give and take.  Being able to clearly articulate one’s own priorities can be a challenge, being able to walk in other people’s shoes, to see the world from their perspective, is even more demanding. 


People often use the term capacity and without getting into a debate on semantics capacity means to me – quantity – which may indeed be important but I use the term capability here with the implication of ‘are we able’. Organisational capability includes people and their skills, systems, whether paper based or e- or m-enabled, rules regulations and legal frameworks as well as financial resources and equipment.  In short, do we have what we need to make a success of this goal? Can we identify any areas where we might want to improve or strengthen? If so, what would make the greatest difference (bearing in mind that sometimes removing an obstacle is the biggest game changer)?


Is there a shared/agreed vision of what success will look like? And what is it realistic to achieve by when?  Will it be evident if plans are going off track?

How will priority issues be sustained and driven forward and prevented from being ‘lost’ in the face of other changes such as political administration or leadership?  Could some aspects of the plan be adjusted but commitment to the central goal sustained?

In some circumstances it might be beneficial to start small, learn and build capability as you go, then apply it on an increasingly larger scale.  In other circumstances where the capability already exists, a national roll out may be possible.  Both options, and variations in between, will benefit from taking a risk assessment approach and conducting reviews of both process and results in order to learn and improve as you proceed.


Are there procedures to ensure policies are non-discriminatory, inclusive, fair? Do you have a robust process in place for developing policy and advising decision makers and legislators? Is policy based on evidence and analysis or on assumption?

Are there mechanisms in place to support policy cohesion across disciplines (e.g. as they affect citizens such as youth, the elderly), and across national boundaries (eg. on issues relating to the environment and the oceans)?

Many of the above questions are intentionally targeted at process issues, at the way you go about generating possible policy options and the subsequent implementation.  I have focused on this because in my experience many public administrators find it difficult to work collaboratively across organisational boundaries and this is one of the implicit expectations of Agenda 2030.  There are a number of entirely understandable reasons for the reluctance; there are accountability and resource streams, sensitivities over areas of expertise and potentially conflicting attitudes developed over time. Realistically there are also issues of power, influence and authority.  Leaders can make a vital difference in showing the way – demonstrating that resolving the issue or achieving the Goal is what is important.  This applies at all levels, but decision makers with authority are looked to for ‘permission’ by others and therefore their behaviour has a significant impact on whether talented people in the organisation will dig deep to work on the most challenging problems. Allowing staff to maintain the status quo is not usually demanding for leaders, but successfully intervening to overcome inertia and get things moving in a new direction requires skill and determination.

Working collaboratively and across boundaries, whether organisational or national, need not necessarily mean sacrificing strongly held policy objectives to the interests of others, but it may mean being prepared to reach an agreement that sees both sets of objectives being met. Over the last year we have seen a reassertion of national priorities and some voices are outspoken in criticism of multinational bodies, perhaps a reflection of a view that they may have lost touch with what concerns citizens.  Whatever the reasons, actions taken at a national level may well have unexpected impacts both internally and externally and what is initially seen as strong and positive response nationally may turn out to have negative consequences internationally - or vice versa. Arguably models of strategy development that encourage us to look broadly at context − whether economic, social or environmental − continue to be relevant, alongside approaches to leadership that are outward looking and encourage citizen centred engagement combined with networking across traditional boundaries.

Also intrinsic to Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals is a commitment to ‘effective, accountable and inclusive institutions’, terms frequently used but which may not be understood in the same way everywhere or by non specialists.  A year ago CEPA discussed the possibility of developing a resource that would be useful to anyone wanting to understand what ‘effective governance’ meant in practice.  As a start, this year at the CEPA meeting, a set of voluntary principles and practices of effective governance for sustainable development grounded in the 2030 Agenda and other United Nations agreements was discussed. CEPA documentation can be found at: as can the report of the meeting and the proposed resolution to ECOSOC.

This article can only touch on issues and topics which deserve much more debate and discussion and to be considered in a more specific context. I think almost all of what we need to know is available to us but the next step, taking action, can be more problematic. The task can seem enormous and while books on leadership expound various models and the latest ideas, not so many talk about the need for courage, determination, resilience and resolve. Not to mention persistence and repetition!  These qualities come from within rather than from any job description. In English there is an old proverb that I subscribe to - ‘where there is a will there is a way’.  I’m equally sure that where there is no will, a way will not be found, so I very much hope that the signatories’ commitment to Agenda 2030 is rewarded by the motivation to achieve tangible outcomes for citizens.

1    The Committee of Experts on Public Administration held its 16th session at the United Nations in New York from 24 to 28 April 2017. Its theme was “Ensuring effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: leadership, action and means”.