Factors important to the establishment, renewal or rehabilitation of the civil service

This literature review seeks to place the emergence of the civil service within its historical context, and highlight the role it has played in state-building. The civil service has helped the state to penetrate peripheral territories, standardise physical and psychological space, and accommodate competing sources of power.

The review notes the expansion of the administrative role of the state, and its role in enabling governments to implement policies and programmes. This is a key dimension of development and central to the functioning of effective states.

There is a growing consensus that to be effective, civil service reform programmes need to move away from an international ‘best practice’ model towards ‘best fit’. Programmes need to be informed by a strong understanding of the complex socio-economic and political realities of the countries in which they are taking place. However, many analyses and reform programmes have failed to pay sufficient attention to colonial legacies and the socio-historical heritage of administrative structures.

Far from seeing the result of this as pure imitation, this historical experience has its own logic, culminating in the adaptation of imported structures of European models of bureaucracy during colonisation. The adaptation and reconfiguration of these structures is context-specific and driven by tensions between the importing culture, the imported model and the recipient state. The concept of ‘hybrid political orders’ indicates how some states have combined formal Weberian state institutions with more ‘traditional’ ones. This has helped promote more effective state–society relations, and facilitated the incorporation of peripheral regions into the state.

  • Findings from a number of case studies highlight the following success factors in the establishment, renewal or rehabilitation of a civil service:
  • an understanding of the historical context and bureaucratic heritage;
  • recognition of the role informal institutions can play in developing an emerging civil service, and acknowledgement that hybridity is not failure;
  • incremental reforms targeting marginal gains and supporting continuous improvements such as developing the capacities of civil servants;
  • a focus on the development of bridging structures (the ‘missing middle’) that manage tensions and foster dialogue between the ‘formal centre’ and ‘informal periphery’, particularly in regions where the state may be contested.

Suggested citation

Avis, W. R. (2015). Factors important to the establishment, renewal or rehabilitation of the civil service. (Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.