Civil service reform (old)


The politics of civil service reform

It is now recognised that political context and political feasibility is critical to the success or otherwise of civil service reform. Indeed, the widespread (and widely reported) ‘failure’ of civil service reform is often because the reforms do not get past the point of implementation.

Even in cases where civil service reform has been implemented, the political context in which change occurs is probably more important and influential than the technical interventions themselves.

Page contents:

Bringing politics back in

Unsworth provides a succinct statement of the centrality of politics in a paper reporting on the work of the Centre for the Future State (CFS). She argues that “effective public institutions evolve through a political process of bargaining between the state and organised groups in society”. Practitioner readers can go to the short ‘messages from the research’ section (pp. 6-7).

Unsworth, S., 2007, 'Can Political Science Speak to Policymakers?' Paper presented at PSA Development Politics Group 2nd Annual Conference, 26 January, International Development Department, University of Birmingham.
How far do current high profile debates about governance offer opportunities for political scientists to influence development policy? Drawing on the experience of the Centre for the Future State (CFS), this paper argues that research has had an impact where it is context specific, or has clear operational implications. It has been less successful in challenging conventional approaches to governance, or moving debate away from a focus on formal institutions, towards a real concern with politics.
Access full text: available online

Robinson’s paper is an application of Unsworth’s thinking.  It shows that difficulties with reform in Uganda were partly due to failure to anticipate what would motivate stakeholders.

Robinson, M., 2006, 'The Political Economy of Governance Reforms in Uganda', IDS Discussion Paper,  May, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.
What political and institutional factors explain the different trajectories of governance reforms in Uganda? This paper surveys three governance reforms in Uganda in the 1990s. The Ugandan experience highlights the difficulty of sustaining successful reforms over the long term in a context of patrimonialism and personal rule.
Access full text: available online

This paper by Grindle highlights the persistence of patronage systems in Latin America, which have withstood the introduction of formal civil service systems.

Grindle, M., 2010, ‘Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing Career Civil Service Systems in Latin America’, Faculty Research Paper Series,June 2010, RWP 10-025, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.
How is capriciousness and private and party interest minimised in the administration of government? This paper suggests that the answer is 'slowly and gradually'. It examines efforts to introduce neutral, stable civil services in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile, noting that patronage persists after laws on career civil service reform have been passed. Implementation (and the political negotiation involved), not law, determines the persistence of patronage and shapes the characteristics of emergent career services. Reforms are caught in an ongoing political process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. It is likely to be slowly, incrementally, and adaptively that patronage systems will eventually be supplanted by career civil service systems. Expectations about what career civil service systems can achieve need to be moderated.
Access full text: available online

The following papers advocate taking a political view of civil service reform:

Andrews, C., 2008, ‘Legitimacy and Context: Implications for Public Sector Reform in Developing Countries’, Public Administration and Development, vol. 28, pp. 171-180
How can successful public sector reform be achieved in developing countries? This article argues that understanding the interplay between public institutions and the surrounding social context is fundamental to developing a reform strategy. Poorer and socio-economically stratified countries face greater reform challenges owing to public institutions' lack of legitimacy. Reforms should focus on areas of governance that impact on poverty and inequality.
Access full text: available online

McCourt, W., 2003, 'Political Commitment to Reform: Civil Service Reform in Swaziland', World Development, vol. 31, no. 6, p. 1015
What factors determine a government’s commitment to implementing political reform? How can international donors identify genuine domestic commitment and generate increased political will where it is lacking? This article uses a case study of civil service reform in Swaziland to highlight the key elements of local commitment and the means available to donors to engage with a government whose commitment is weak. It argues that strong political leadership and irrevocable reform policies are key factors in assuring implementation, while persuasive, high-level donor engagement with elites can help foster commitment.
Access full text: via document delivery. Please see document summary

Polidano, C., 2001, 'Why Civil Service Reforms Fail', Public Policy and Management Working Paper, no. 16, Institute for Development Policy and Management, Manchester.
Most reforms in government fail. They fail not because, once implemented, they yield unsatisfactory outcomes but because they never get past the implementation stage at all. Why is this the case? This paper seeks to identify some of the obstacles that keep reformers from making good choices. By focusing on the approach to reform, not on its content, the paper establishes that what matters most in improving the record of implementations are the strategic and tactical decisions taken in the course of putting the reforms into effect. The content of reform makes little difference to the success rate. The paper seeks to come to conclusions as to what approach is likely to maximise the chances of success and minimise those of failure. Three key tactical issues are analysed: the scope for reform, the role of aid donors, and the leadership of change.
Access full text: available online

Identifying the positive

To some extent, the negative experiences of civil service reform over the last 20 to 30 years have their roots in a perception of failure itself. Singularly identifying things that ‘don’t work’ and then trying to fix them may have been a recipe for failure all along. Some authors have taken a different approach: looking for things that do work and building on them. This approach has resulted in some encouraging results.

Judith Tendler’s book 'Good Government in the Tropics' marked a turning point in thinking about civil service reform.

Tendler, J., 1997, ‘Good Government in the Tropics’, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Why do governments often perform poorly and what causes them to improve? This text discusses good governance in developing countries. Current mainstream development literature is concerned with how governments fail to deliver public services and theory is built from this. The text formulates advice by drawing on cases of good performance and in so doing reveals how some of the current advice goes wrong.
Access full text: via document delivery. Please see document summary

Donor advice has been directed at limiting the ‘damage’ caused by the public sector and falls into three categories:

  1. Reducing the size of the state (sacking ‘excess’, contracting out, privatising and decentralising)
  2. Ending many of the programmes that enabled corrupt practices (import/export licenses, subsidised credit)
  3. Introducing market pressures and incentives to public agencies and their managers and exposing them to the wishes and dissatisfactions of users.

The explanations for poor performance in the public sector have several flaws. Tendler argues that "much of the current advice offered to developing countries, and the thinking that underlies it, is misguided… Those who formulate the advice have not been curious enough about the evidence imbedded in instances of good government in the countries being advised" (p. 135). Based on experiences from Brazil’s Northeast, she identifies four explanations for better performance by civil servants:

  1. There was a high dedication of workers to their jobs.
  2. The government fed this dedication with repeated public demonstrations of admiration and respect for what they were doing.
  3. The scope of the civil servants’ work was often wider than their proscribed functions, often done voluntarily. It sometimes involved more brokering than expertise, cohered together in a client-centric, problem-solving approach to service delivery. It gave rise to trusting and respectful relationships between clients and public servants.
  4. This wider scope of work was not an ‘extra’ burden on existing work but was seen as a way of defining what needed to be done in order to reach a programme’s goals. It was customisation of tasks in response to what needed to be done.

Others have taken up Tendler’s search for success. The following papers provide case study examples of successful governance reform.

Robinson, M., 2007, ‘The Politics of Successful Governance Reforms: Lessons of Design and Implementation’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, Volume 45, Number 4, pp. 521–548
What political and institutional factors contribute to successful governance reforms? This article 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.
Access full text via document delivery: please see document summary

Bebbington, A. and W. McCourt, 2006, ‘Where does development success come from? Explanations and practical implications’, University of Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management Working Paper No. 70.
What are the key ingredients of successful development policies? This paper uses seven case studies from Africa, Asia and Latin America to explore the nature and explanation of development policy success. Ultimately, success is determined by the balance of power, committed leadership and good institutional design.
Access full text: available online

Even in countries with poor governance and weak public sectors, ‘pockets of productivity’ exist.

Leonard, D.K., 2008, ‘Where Are ‘Pockets’ of Effective Agencies Likely in Weak Governance States and Why? A Propositional Inventory’, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
How and why are "pockets of productivity" able to emerge in states where governance is generally weak? This paper inventories the array of available hypotheses and condenses them into five sets of mega-hypotheses. However, there will not necessarily be a neat chain of causation to help explain and expand these productive pockets of governance and development.
Access full text: available online