Models of Public Service Reform: A Problem-Solving Approach

Willy McCourt


This paper identifies six models of public service reform that have been practiced in developing countries over the past half-century. It critically reviews their implementation, discussing them as attempted solutions to problems that have arisen in the policy process in different countries. The models are: public administration; decentralisation; pay and employment reform; New Public Management; integrity and corruption reforms; and ‘bottom-up’ reforms. The paper seeks an explanation for their disappointing performance in the political economy of reform, with an emphasis on how learning from failure can be the paradoxical foundation of future success.

Abstracting from the practice of developing country governments over recent decades, the paper identifies six major problems and six families of reform as attempted solutions:

Problem Approach Main action period
  1. How can we make government orderly and broadly competent?
‘Weberian’ public administration and capacity-building Post-independence period in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
  1. How can we get government closer to the grassroots?
Decentralization 1970s to present
  1. How can we make government more affordable?
Pay and employment reform 1980s and 1990s
  1. How can we make government perform better and deliver on our key objectives?
New Public Management 1990s to present
  1. How can we make government more honest?
Integrity and anti-corruption reforms 1990s to present
  1. How can we make government more responsive to citizens?
‘Bottom-up’ reforms Late 1990s to present

The categories above overlap: governments do frequently try to solve more than one of these problems at the same time, and use a mixture of approaches. In addition, the ‘periodisation’ of the table should not be taken too literally. Governments did not suddenly discover honesty in the 1990s, and particular governments (such as Morocco’s) started pay and employment reform for the first time only in the 2000s. However, there have been periods when particular questions have dwelt on policymakers’ minds. Public policy issues arise in the order they do partly because of external shocks, but also as reactions to the unintended consequences of the previous generation of reforms. For example, the bureaucratisation that was the unintended consequence of Weberian public administration created the need for decentralisation.

Bottom-up reforms

Bottom-up reforms refer to state programmes where priorities come directly from citizens, placing public officials in a responsive or even passive posture. The Indian experience with citizen report cards and the Brazilian experiment in participatory budgeting are innovations which illustrate both the strength and one or two weaknesses of bottom-up reforms. For example, a ‘citizen report card’ initiative in Bengaluru (Bangalore) in Karnataka state in 1993 was not repeated after the 2004 election in Karnataka: it suffered from the perception that it served a sectional (urban) interest. The participatory budgeting experiment in Porto Alegre, Brazil accounted for only a modest proportion of the municipal budget.

There are questions of appropriateness with the bottom-up reforms, just as there have been with the top-down ones. The ‘voice’ approach is most promising for functions such as service provision, regulation and revenue collection where there is a clear interface with citizens, and therefore a citizen constituency for reform. However, it is less promising for overall policy formulation and ‘back office’ functions such as human resource management which are less visible to citizens.


The paper suggests that where the reviewed approaches failed, it was not because of their intrinsic deficiency, but because they were responses to problems which arose in one setting, but which did not arise in another. Policymakers could therefore begin by specifying the problem they are trying to solve, and only then move on to selecting an approach which will solve the problem, or at least help to solve it.

Thus, context needs to be prioritised over ‘best practice’. In particular, public service reform is intimately affected by the political context in which it is attempted. Sensitivity to politics may open up a window of reform opportunity.


McCourt, W. (2013). Models of public service reform: A problem-solving approach. Policy Research Working Paper 6428. Washington D.C.: World Bank.