The Specificity of Public Service Reform
Author: G Caiden
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What are the key contours of public service reform and what can we learn from experience so far? What impact has New Public Management (NPM) had? Despite universal recognition of the decline of public services and the need for reform, considerable divergence of views still exists on the best strategy and sequencing of reform to adopt in individual countries. This article, published in Public Administration and Development, examines the nature of public service reform, outlines some of the universal problems faced by reformers and applies this analysis to the potential for public service reform in India.
Public service reform is highly complicated, emotional and bound up with ideology and values. Reform is a risk and even the best of intentions will not necessarily produce successful solutions in the context of changing institutional circumstances and priorities. The New Public Management (NPM) movement offers a wide selection of tools from which reformers can pick and choose. Its programme is part of a bigger scheme to transform government by promoting debureaucratisation, deregulation, downsizing and output. Successes are more likely to occur when reforms are not imposed but realised from local talent, dedication and public support.
Since 1990 India has successfully moved towards liberalisation and the dismantling of external controls. However, there is a need for a number of new reforms to tackle the inadequacy of services, the following factors will need to be considered:
- The public service is in need of a serious overhaul. Wage costs absorb a substantial proportion of revenues and there are weak mechanisms for policy co-ordination with unreformed systems and attitudes.
- Increased budget allocations cannot assure better development outcomes without improved systems for delivery and administration.
- Progress on fiscal and administrative aspects of decentralisation has been slow, with state governments reluctant to give up power to local authorities.
- Corruption is still rife, with India ranking 71st in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. This causes a demoralisation of staff and a lack of public trust in the government.
- Demand driven approaches to problems of governance through citizen action and participation encourage greater accountability, which is needed to improve service quality.
- The lack of incentive to make civil service reforms work needs to be addressed. Governments should be motivated through making public officials accountable to the poor.
The reputation and attraction of the public service should be restored to prevent exodus and encourage talented staff to join. Therefore, public service reformers should consider:
- Restoring the image and reputation of the public service. Public officials should acknowledge public servants' contribution to public well-being.
- The danger that fragmentation may cause problems with maintaining a high level recruitment system, based on merit and credibility.
- Public sector employees feel that their official and legal compensation is inadequate. Fierce staff unions could hamper efforts at flexible staff recruitment.
- Demands have grown for a public service that promotes diversity from different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
- Corruption virtually kills reform as the corrupt do their best to obstruct and sabotage change. Therefore, reformers need to give a high priority to reducing corruption if reforms are to have a lasting impact.
- An alternative to the public sector in democratic countries could take the form of services managed by users and participatory organisations at the local level.
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Caiden, G. and Sundaram, P., 2004, 'The Specificity of Public Service Reform', Public Aministration and Development, vol. 24, issue 5, pp. 373-383