The Politics of Successful Governance Reforms: Lessons of Design and Implementation

Mark Robinson


What political and institutional factors contribute to successful governance reforms? This article from Commonwealth and Comparative Politics compares reforms in Brazil, India and Uganda. It finds that successful reforms require a combination of political commitment, technical capacity and gradual implementation. Donors can support governance improvement most effectively by working with reform-oriented politicians and bureaucrats in contexts where reform is politically feasible to increase incentives for the changes.

More attention needs to be given to political factors and bureaucratic incentives in governance reform, as technocratic approaches offer only limited effectiveness. The article considers political and institutional factors across four areas of reform: public financial management, anti-corruption, civil service and service delivery.

Three factors essential to successful reform are identified. These are strong and enduring political commitment, technical capacity combined with initial insulation from political and societal pressures and incremental rather than swift, broad reforms:

  • Visible domestic political commitment at the highest level is needed to support those implementing reforms and to overcome opposition.
  • Significant technical capacity is needed, which may take time to develop. Insulation from external pressure during the design phase followed by the gradual opening-up of the policy process during implementation fosters sustainable outcomes.
  • Gradually implemented reforms selected and sequenced to generate early benefits and minimise opposition are most likely to be successful. Improvements to service delivery and civil service accountability incite popular support and are easier to implement than structural reforms which require political commitment, material incentives and clear results to be sustainable.

Donors can promote governance reform most effectively through incremental, small-scale and flexible responses to domestically driven reform agendas. Operational considerations are that: domestic ownership of and political commitment to reform is essential; the sustainability of incremental reforms may outweigh their relative slowness; and that funding may be needed to strengthen technical capacity or compensate those set to lose from reform implementation. Further implications include:

  • Incremental reforms reduce political risk, as small cumulative changes provoke little opposition, can strengthen political leaders and can achieve large-scale impacts over time.
  • Incremental reforms can reinforce each other, as for example, anti-corruption measures can improve services by reducing resource leakage.
  • Complex structural reforms require extended preparation to establish the necessary capacity and to include the compensation of losers from reforms in the programme design.
  • Too much consultation in the design and early implementation phases of reform allows political and civil society opposition undue influence. Participation should be gradually introduced during implementation, with channels for citizen feedback created to build support.
  • Effective oversight and monitoring mechanisms are required at an early stage of reform to prevent rent-seeking and to prevent institutions from being neutralised.
  • Financially, modest initial support that can be scaled up is most appropriate, plus flexible lending instruments responsive to new reform opportunities.


Robinson, M., 2007, 'The Politics of Successful Governance Reforms: Lessons of Design and Implementation', Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 521-548