Civil service reform (old)



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What is the civil service?

The civil service is a sub-set of the public service. It is the core, permanent administrative arm of government and comprises permanent and pensionable officials employed in civil capacity working in government ministries, departments and agencies. Public service also includes the military, the police, teachers, health workers, local government workers and public enterprises.

The civil service advises on and develops policy, implements government policies and programmes, and manages day-to-day activities.

Why is a good civil service important?

It is generally agreed that a good civil service is important for five reasons:

Schiavo-Campo, S. and Sundaram, P. (eds.), 2001, 'Government Employment and Compensation - Facts and Policies', Chapter 10 in To Serve and To Preserve: Improving Public Administration in a Competitive World, Asian Development Bank, Manila, pp. 368-419

  • Governance: There is compelling evidence that a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good governance is a skilled, motivated and efficient civil service with a professional ethos. By contrast, a bad civil service is a sufficient condition to produce bad governance (p. 368).
  • Public goods and services: Access to public services and their quantity and quality depends in large measure on the skills and motivation of the public employees who provide the services or oversee their delivery.
  • Economic policy improvements and public expenditure/revenue management: Frequently, good policy reform programmes have been formulated in every detail but one: who will implement them? (p. 369). Affirmative reforms in particular (for example improving public expenditure management) require competent and motivated civil servants for implementation.
  • Fiscal sustainability: “… efficient downsizing of government calls for intelligent ways to reduce the numbers or the salaries of public employees or both” (p. 370). Concentration on cost saving alone jeopardises government effectiveness and rarely produces lasting savings.
  • Institutional development: “ … The effectiveness of organizations and their interaction with the regulatory framework depends fundamentally on the people in those organizations” (p.371). Thus, a good civil service is both the effect and cause of institutional development. “More efficient rules, including those on incentives, can lead to improved performance by government employees. But conversely, a skilled and motivated civil service is instrumental in institutional development and the implementation of regulatory improvements.” (p. 371).
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Why reform the civil service?

One or more of the following factors has generally driven civil service reform programmes:

  • fiscal concerns arising from overstaffing and unsustainable wage bills
  • the need to facilitate policy agility and ensure that legitimate policies can be implemented
  • the need to improve service quality and operational efficiency. 

Donor conditionality and the changing role of the state have also been contributing factors to a lesser degree.

The changing focus of civil service reform

Civil service reform refers to interventions that affect the organisation, performance and working conditions of employees paid from central, provincial or state government budgets. Decolonisation brought a phase of institution building and training programmes for capacity building. Since then, civil service reform has gone through three major phases. The first two were mainly technical interventions. The third has a more political focus.

  • The first reforms were largely quantitative. They began in the 1980s, following the structural adjustment programmes supported by the IMF and the World Bank, and focused on 'cutting down to size'. The emphasis was on controlling salary costs, primarily through job reduction, sometimes leading to the retrenchment of serving civil servants.
  • The second phase began in the 1990s and presented a broader range of reforms aimed at 'building up', for example, performance assessment, monitoring, transparency, benchmarking, decentralisation, regulation and sound financial management.
  • The third (and current) phase was brought about by the apparent failure of stages 1 and 2. The biggest development in thinking about civil service reform has been not in the ‘technology’ of reform, but in the political context in which it is attempted.  Even the World Bank now argues: “Administrative structures and public employment arrangements cannot be considered in isolation. They exist in a political environment – and serve political as well as functional interests. Changes must be considered in the light of winners and losers and who wants what.” ( Another significant feature of the latest stage of civil service reform is a focus on results, particularly in improvements in service delivery.

Barriers to civil service reform

Only about one-third of civil service reforms attempted by the World Bank and other donors have achieved satisfactory outcomes, and even the “successful” programmes have often not been sustainable. Downsizing and capacity building initiatives have often failed to produce permanent reductions in civil service size or overcome capacity constraints in economic management and service delivery.

Some of the reasons for this limited success are:

  • the sheer size of the civil service with its resulting complexity and entrenched power
  • its basis as a source of formal employment
  • patronage and political support
  • the civil service as both agent and subject of reform - that is, the people doing the reform may also be the people who need reforming
  • the unacceptability of reform to the people who need to carry out the reform
  • poor and inconsistent quality of data on civil service performance, making it difficult to fine tune programmes
  • over-emphasis on wage enhancements as a method for performance improvement
  • a technocratic approach to reform which assumes that the introduction of formal rules would be sufficient to change behaviour.

Where is a good place to start?

There is no universal model of reform. The following documents provide a background to reform and emphasise the importance of the institutional and political context.

Scott, Z., 2011, ‘Evaluation of Public Sector Governance Reforms 2001-2011: Literature Review’, Oxford Policy Management
Why has Public Sector Governance Reform (PSGR) carried out in developing countries over the past decade not been effective? How can such interventions be improved? This literature review shows how much of the existing research emphasises political economy and incentive problems, and the need for reforms to be demand-led rather than externally-driven. A fundamental rethink is needed on the way PSGRs are carried out: more attention needs to be paid to politics in both the design and the implementation of reforms.
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Webb, S. et al, 2008, ‘CSA Reform Design' in Public Sector Reform: What Works and Why?’ (pp 52-57), World Bank, WashingtonThis report examines World Bank support for Public Sector Reform (PSR) between 1999 and 2006. It focuses on four areas: public financial management, administrative and civil service, revenue administration, and anticorruption and transparency. In terms of civil service reform, six factors are found to be particularly important: analytic diagnosis and advice, pragmatic opportunism in selecting reforms to support, realistic donor expectations, appropriate packages of lending instruments, tangible indicators of success, and effective donor coordination.
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Mason, J., 2004, 'Public Administration Reform', practice note, United Nations Development Programme, New York
What makes Public Administration Reform (PAR) a key component in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? What lessons can be learnt from the experience of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in this area? This practice note establishes a strategic framework for the support of public administration for democratic governance. It synthesises current thinking and approaches and provides practical guidance and recommendations for public administration programming.
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While civil service reform is usually associated with democratisation and an increasingly decentralised government with local services, the following paper describes the paradox that reform may be best supported by a centralised government structure.

Witesman, E. M. and Wise, C. R. , 2009 ‘The Centralization/ Decentralization Paradox in Civil Service Reform: How Government Structure Affects Democratic Training of Civil Servants’, Public Administration Review, Volume 69, Number 1, pp. 116-127
What effect does government structure have on the provision of democratic training to civil servants? This paper finds that centralised government structure significantly increases the odds of receiving both anticorruption training and policy skills training. The paradox of civil service reform is that democratisation may be best achieved through the centralised structure which it will ultimately undermine. Proper ordering of the reform process will use the strong culture of centralised, hierarchical institutions to instill democratic training: democratisation should precede decentralisation.
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From the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, the ‘government effectiveness’ indicator is a useful barometer of what observers think of the effectiveness of the civil service in a given country. The indicators are for 212 countries for 1996–2006, for six dimensions of governance:

  • Voice and Accountability
  • Political Stability and Absence of Violence
  • Government Effectiveness
  • Regulatory Quality
  • Rule of Law
  • Control of Corruption