Function versus form in public sector reform

Brian Levy


This book chapter aims to broaden the options for public sector reform. It explores micro-level initiatives that aim to support the emergence of institutions capable of fulfilling governance expectations. One approach is to focus on comprehensive reforms along Weberian principles with trickle-down principles. The other is more incremental via targeted efforts and multi-stakeholder initiatives. It argues that successful reforms need to be aligned with a country’s political and institutional realities – context determines the balance between top-down and bottom-up strategies.

Improving bureaucratic performance has long been understood from a Weberian perspective that the issue is a managerial one. Even New Public Management (NPM) reform, which shifted the focus from inputs to outputs, still assumes reforms are built on pre-existing Weberian notions of public bureaucracy. However, in many developing countries this is not the case. While a principal purpose of comprehensive public management reforms is to limit the personalised discretion, personalised interaction among elites and between elites and non-elites is often how politics is organised in competitive, clientelist countries.

The 2004 WDR exposed this false assumption and instead argued it was one of accountability.  It highlighted the gap between the rapid expansion of service provision and access to services and the continued poor quality and results of these services. The long-route of accountability, outlined in the 2004 WDR, is complex and underpinned by elections and other accountability mechanisms. It involves: political leaders translating vision into action, public bureaucracies conducting cost-benefit analysis, front-line services providers taking responsibility to deliver priorities laid out, and internal management in public bureaucracies that align efforts with organisational goals.

While the 2004 WDR highlighted the distinction between supply-side and demand-side approaches, it failed to focus on the middle-ground between the two, where, in many cases, opportunities for achieving gains can be found. A focus on incremental, but cumulative, reform is perhaps a more successful approach than the reforms of the past few decades. Emphasis is on strengthening specific systems where there is likely to be less political resistance to change and concentrating efforts on specific sectors, agencies or locales where the question of attribution to concrete development results is more straight-forward.

Collective action has huge potential as an approach to addressing challenges of public sector performance for three reasons: (i) it can create space within difficult environments; (ii) it can include both governmental and non-governmental actors; and (iii) it has a wide application range. However there are challenges in facilitating equal cooperation between participants, and avoiding “predation” from powerful actors who seek to capture the positive gains with little input and a neglect of measures established by the group.

Collective action efforts are theorised to fail unless:

  • there are stakeholders with strong incentives for the effort to succeed;
  • these stakeholders are well-connected politically with influential ruling factions and/or can draw on widely-held social norms; and
  • leaders are skilful in mobilising and coordinating stakeholders.

The chapter includes a table outlining how approaches may work in a particular setting. For example, multi stakeholder engagement: In strong formal institutions or leaderships it allows principals to monitor their agents more effectively while in more patronage-orientated settings, where there is little prospect of comprehensive reforms, it can be a tool for building and sustaining “islands of effectiveness”, even in the absence of a supportive public sector.


Levy, B. (2014). Function versus form in public sector reform. Working with the grain: Integrating governance and growth in development strategies. New York: Oxford University Press.